Saturday, September 17, 2016

Bronze Opium Weights from Southeast Asia

A Variety of Antique Bird Opium Weights
We recently found a fascinating little bronze bird. In researching it we learned about "opium weights." Opium weight? Why were special weights used for measuring opium? Well here is the story ... in short form ... as told by Sylvia Fraser-Lu in Arts of Asia magazine (January/February 1982 Issue): 

They are referred to as "opium" weights. The term immediately conjures up visions of dingy secluded rooms off dark winding alleys, where frail trans-parent Orientals with glazed unseeing eyes lie lethargically on platform beds puffing intermittently at long clay pipes packed with a wad of opium which has been carefully measured using one of these weights. It is indeed tempting to contemplate that a notorious substance such as opium, the reliever of pain on the one hand and the cause of untold suffering to many on the other, should have its own distinctive and special set of weights and measures.

This, alas, seems to be but a myth. The term "opium" weight for these measures was probably coined by a foreigner with a vivid imagination and a fascination for the forbidden.

While some of the mountain tribes of the Burma, Laos and Thailand used the smallest sizes for weighing opium, these weights were actually made for everyday use, including all sorts of commerce, and were used on scales to weigh all sorts of foods, raw materials and metals. The weights were graded by a measure of ticals … one tical equals 10-12 grams … and have been found in weights from 1/50 tical to tens of ticals.
 
Hintha Bird Weight Set in Graduated Sizes
Most common antique opium weights are made of bronze in the form of a Hintha (bird or chicken) or Brahmani (duck). There are also more rare weights in different shapes as lions or other animals. The earliest Hintha weights found are thought to date from around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. These early ones  are set on a pumpkin-shaped base. When the British occupied Burma in 1885, they introduced round and flat iron weights and from that time officially no more bronze weights were cast.
 
Early Antique Animal Form Opium Weights
(See the discussion of "Opium Weights" on The Eclectic Museum website for more details on weights; or this brief history of opium curiously titled The Plant of Joy.)

So back to our little bird. It turns out to be a 19th century bronze 16 tical Hintha opium weight. Pretty cool. This is now on our antique sales site priced at $69.00.

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