Huanghuali & Paktong Opium Travelling Box, Huanghuali wood, Paktong, China, circa 1800, length: 21.1cm, width: 12.4cm, height: 7.7cm
This rare travelling opium set made of paktong and housed in a fitted hunghauli box in fine condition dates to around 1800. The box's double handles, ruyi-form corner fittings and front latch handle are of baitung. An item of this luxury and workmanship would have been afforded only by a member of the aristocracy or a leading merchant.
The box has a removable 'door' held in place by a latch mounted on an engraved baitung fitting in the shape of a bat. The cover or door which pulls away to reveal an interior huanghuali tray in which the various receptacles for opium use sit. Beneath this is a thin compartment in which brushes and perhaps a small pair of scissors to trim the wick would have been stored.
The set comprises seven paktong receptacles, including a lamp base, wick containers, opium containers, a waste container, and a small oil can with a fine spout. The covers are finely incised with vegetal motifs and have typically Chinese 'cash' symbol fretwork. The receptacles are all in very fine condition with only one minor area of loss to one area of fretwork. Also, the oil can might have had a small cap, but the cover for the compartment in which the can sits is present nonetheless.
Huanghuali wood is a type of beautifully grained richly-coloured rosewood much prized throughout the centuries to the point that the tree is now extinct in China. Huanghuali with pairs of 'ghostly eyes' is particularly prized - this phenomenon is particularly evident on the front the internal drawer of this piece.
Paktong is a silvery, hard metal comprised of copper, zinc, brass and nickel.
An article about Chinese paktong published in Arts of Asia (Soltie, B.P., 'Chinese Paktong: Magic metal with the soul of gold,' Arts of Asia, November-December 1992) shows a travelling opium set encased in a hardwood rather than a huanghuali box. The author comments of that example that it is "one of the finest examples [of Chinese paktong] we have seen." The example here is clearly superior in terms of the quality of the paktong receptacles and the use of huanghuali.
Michael Backman Ltd www.michaelbackmanltd.com (all text & images © Michael Backman Ltd)