Relics from the last Opium War

The items below represent the last vestige of British dominance of the Opium trade to China which culminated in the second Opium war that ended in 1860.

The late 19th century Opium pipe with a Malacca stem , turned brass ferules, ivory insulators, and hand of carved sheep horn are reminiscent of the construction of an English walking stick and Georgian silver tea pot. They are of a British manufacture. The ceramic pipe bowl circa 1900 is inlaid with terracotta characters and is of Chinese manufacture. The pierced brass cover of the opium lamp was used to disguise its purpose and was made in China in the early 20th century. The Chinese silver plated brass opium container is decorated with applied dragons and stamped with a Chinese character ( early 20th century). In 1907 China signed an agreement with India ( The source of Britains opium export to China) banning the importation of the drug. Opium paraphernalia continued to be made on the continent until the Chinese Communist Government came to power in 1949.

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Komai Landscape

Among Japanese metalwork techniques, few are as painstakingly time-consuming  and demanding of constant, sharp focus as Nunome-Zogan - a gold and silver inlaying process developed and popularized by the famous Komai Otojiro and his family in 1853. The technique starts with a very fine cross etching of the base metal (often a black, mixed metal) , and then continues with the inlaying of thin gold or silver thread to create very intricately detailed scenes. Also known as Japanese Damascene, Nunome Zogan has been applied to a wide range of objects, from combs and buttons to cabinets and shrines. This jewelry box depicted here is inlaid with 22k gold, which is an ideal metal for this method as it is very pliable and soft. There are also some silver accents added to the mountaintop. The mark seems to indicate that it was made by the Ashihara school of Komai in the late Meiji or early Taisho period. A piece such as this would have taken hundreds of hours to complete every detail of its spectacular, miniature landscape. 

 

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A Boy and his Turtle

A 19th century Meiji period Japanese okimono. The Japanese made many fascinating miniature figures and this one is quite unique among its kind, mainly due to its construction and mechanical elements; the articulation of the turtle's hands and feet allow it to move in a very lifelike fashion when exposed to any kind of vibration. It is a very finely manufactured piece that has withstood many earthquakes in its lifetime. Purchased in Japan, this okimono was considered by some collectors to have been either an earthquake detector or a compass, but we believe it was created purely out of aesthetic pleasure and playfulness - much like the young boy entranced by the fluid movement of his pet turtle in a wooden bucket of water.

Late Qing Dynasty Military Badge

Such pieces of embroidery were often sewn onto the robes of both civilian and military professionals to denote the rank they held. Birds were commonly represented in the insignia of civilians, whereas a variety of wild animals, often fierce ones to represent courage, decorated those who held a certain rank in the military. Also interesting is that if the badge contained an image of the sun, it was  generally meant to be worn by a woman - sometimes the spouse of a ranked official. However, the same symbol appeared on the badges of a special group of operatives within the regime called the censors. They were recruited from among top ranking civilians to investigate the workings of bureaucracy and deter corruption. This particular piece here shows a biao, which is a panther-like creature representing the sixth rank in the military. The blue bats around the border were meant to bring the wearer good luck and happiness, as the word for bat sounded similar to the word for happiness.

 

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Tang Dynasty Terracotta Polo Player

This is a rare piece of terracotta pottery from the Tang Dynasty (618 - 907 AD). Statues such as this one are the earliest depictions of polo players in any art form. Such statues are rare primarily because polo was the sport of choice of the affluent few - much like it still is today. These figures were often buried in the tombs of the wealthy as they believed that the figures would come to life to serve the deceased in the afterlife. The higher the social status of the person buried, the more such figures would be in their tomb. A single burial of a member of the imperial family could contain hundreds of such items. Sadly, this type of pottery all but disappeared around 755 AD when the Lushan Rebellion affected production in the two areas with the majority of the kilns: Henan and Hebei.

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1904 Japanese Photo Album

This Japanese lacquered photo album from 1904 contains 48 hand-coloured pictures of various aspects of daily life in Japan. At the time, photo cameras were not a commonly owned item, so taking pictures was left in the hands of professional photographers. If visitors in Japan wanted to recall their journey, they would purchase photo albums such as this one as a souvenir. 

Kinkarakawa

Japanese late Edo period Kinkarakawa purse with Kabuto metal detail. Kinkarakawa is a type of leather prepared according to a method first developed by the Medici family in Italy. This technique was later learned by the Japanese from the Dutch in the 17th century. Essentially, the cow hide is impressed with floral patterns and a thin gold sheet. By 1668, such items had become so popular in Japan that the emperor placed a ban on further imports, which lasted until the Meiji period. Soseki Natsumi, one of Japan's most celebrated writers, often described his characters as carrying a Kinkarakawa tobacco or pipe pouch such as the one in these pictures. Nowadays, these items can rarely be found in such excellent condition as the one presented here.

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Chinese Hat Buttons

At the beginning of the Qing period, the chao guan (a Chinese official's hat) was worn on semi-formal occasions without its usual ornate spike. The Yongzheng Emperor appears to have felt that this was unsatisfactory. In 1727 he introduced a new type of hat insignia which could be worn in place of the ornate spike with less formal court attire, and also with ordinary dress when dealing with official business. The new insignia was a large round bead of material of the appropriate colour mounted on a gilt base. The highest ranking officials wore plain opaque red buttons, while the lowest wore silver. Opaque blue was the fourth rank, while transparent and opaque white indicated the fifth and sixth ranks respectively.

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Kabuki Album

A 1920s album containing photographs and postcards of famous Japanese Kabuki actors. Kabuki theatre is a classical Japanese dance drama which started in the very early 17th century and continues until today, retaining many of its unique elements. Worthy of note among these elements are the feminine roles and postures that some of the male Kabuki actors played. Perhaps gender roles were accepted as fluid in societies centuries older than our current, modern one. Or perhaps the theatrical stage has always been a place for humanity to explore and question its definitions. The album contains 93 photos, each capturing different aspects of the human soul in a variety of peculiar situations.

Risque Tins

On the left is a beautifully illustrated biscuit tin from Huntley & Palmer, who are one of the oldest biscuit makers in the world. On the right, is a marked, Chinese silver card case, available at Maitreya Arts of Asia. Although the two items were made more than a century apart, they have more than a few themes in common: leisure, nature, family ...and public fornication. The image on the biscuit tin was mistakenly believed to have been designed by a disgruntled employee, when in fact the artist (Mick Hill from Berkshire) stated that he was simply "having a bit of fun". Three distinctly naughty details can be identified upon close inspection, the most obvious of which is the two dogs having sex in the tall grass by the picnic table. The two dogs on the card case, however, seem to have no such need for privacy as they are engaged in the act two feet away from the table. The biscuit tin was made in 1979, whereas the card case is from the late 19th century.

Extreme Fashion

In earlier times in China, it was quite fashionable for women to bind their feet. The smaller the feet, the more attractive they were considered. It was also a status symbol amongst the wealthy. Women could barely stand stand let alone walk in these otherwise delicately made shoes, so they had to either sit or be carried. Thankfully, this fashion trend has passed.

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Risqué Reflections

A hand mirror with a risqué secret.  This rare, turn of the century western style hand mirror is likely of Cantonese origin.  The handle and back inlaid with jade and coral floral decorations, it seems a rather mundane piece, until one notices the latch and hinge discretely moulded into the back panel.  The mirror swings open to reveal an erotic scene of two lovers.  The piece exemplifies the discretion around sexual mores typical of this time period for this area.

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In hopes for a son

This piece of Tz'u chou pottery, circa 1900s, was made in northern China.  A fertility figurine, this small clay figure was thought to promote not only fertility, but also increase the chance of conceiving a much-desired male child.

Chinese Antique

Carvings for law and order

Here are two unusual pieces of Chinese art.  Turn of the century pieces such as these were made to illustrate to rural and largely illiterate communities the unique and inventive punishments that government officials would invent for anyone who broke the law.  Young or old, all could clearly understand the dire warning that these pieces conveyed.

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