Genuine Antique Elephant Opium Weights Vs Fake Imposters

October 19th, 2023

We recently listed several authentic antique bronze elephant opium weights that we managed to find recently in Northern Thailand and Laos. Elephant weights are indeed rare nowadays and finding these elusive little treasures elicits a quite a buzz. You can view these elephant weights here: Antique Opium Weights

Before listing them we did a search on elephant opium weights and were disappointed to see that that the vast majority of them were modern reproductions presented as the genuine article, many in sets. Fake or reproduction elephant opium weights are generally easy to spot, especially if you are familiar with originals. The form is ugly, the alloy composition inferior, no signs of genuine wear, and a telltale patina that openly confesses its imposter status. Caveat emptor.

Below are photos of several fake antique elephant weights currently listed on the internet by unscrupulous sellers .

Fake elephant opium weights

Below are photos of the genuine elephant weights that we recently listed on sabai designs gallery.

genuine elephant opium weights from Thailand and Laos
verification marks of antique elephant opium weights
Bases of elephant opium weights

According to Gear*, while elephant weights are found occasionally in Laos, Burma, and Yunnan, there is little doubt that the origin of elephant weights was in north-west Siam, the former Lan-Na kingdom of Siam (Thailand) and not Laos, the former Lan Chang. It’s thought that elephant weights made their first appearance in Siam as early as 1581AD. By the 1800s a variety of animal weights were in use and even traded as currency and include birds, snakes, buffalo, rabbits, dogs, horses and monkeys. Elephant weights were cast in Phongsali, northern Laos, and Siam. It is widely agreed that the animal weights of Siam and Laos were generally much less accurate than Burmese weights. Genuine elephant weights have a distinct patina combining elements of dark grey, silvery, rusty brown.

* Earth to Heaven: The Royal Animal-Shaped Weights of the Burmese Empire Paperback , 2002 by Joan & Donald Gear

Opium weights, including the elephant, were often adjusted to match the modified mass unit scale (which varied over time) by removing a little alloy from the base of the weight or adding a nugget of metal. Laotian and Siamese opium weights were generally less accurate than Burmese weights. The mass scales varied from 11.8 grams to 16.3 grams. In 1826AD the mass unit was reported as 11.8 grams.

It is reported in the Annals of Chiangmai that in 1460 AD, the Siamese adopted the Chinese word peng to refer to a particular mass and today is used to refer to the bronze animal weights in general. In 1558 AD, Chiang Mai, the capital of the La-Na Kingdom, was sacked by the Burmese who destroyed the weights and measures system, and along with it, the currency of the kakim silver ingot. The Burmese introduced their own floral ingot as well its own standardization of weights and measures. It is likely that elephant weights were cast at this time and continued to be produced after the Burmese lost control in the second half of the 18th century. Following the departure of the Burmese, other animal shaped figurines made their appearance and it has been suggested that other than serve as weights, they were used as currency. By 1858 Siam began producing machine made coins eliminating the need for bronze figurines to serve as currency. Even so, animal shaped figurines continued to be cast. The elephant weights listed on our site were most likely cast in the late 18th – 19th century.

antique bronze elephant opium weights
antique elephant opium weight

Opium Weights from Northern Siam & Laos

April 1st, 2015

Over the past year or so we have been introducing more opium weights from Northern Siam and Laos to our collection. These weights are quite distinct from the better known weights cast in Burma that fall into mainly two categories- the beast and bird weights of various incarnations tied to the change of monarch. Weights from Siam and Laos include the elephant, toe, and hamsa and later, certain animals from the oriental solar zodiac including the horse, rooster, tiger, bull, goat, snake, rabbit, monkey, dog, and pig. The bronze is generally of high quality with a dark patina varying from grey to chocolate brown. These weights make a nice addition to Burmese weights for the collector. In our experience, they are found in fewer numbers than Burmese weights.

Opium Weights from Siam and Laos

Siam

It is reported in the Annals of Chiangmai that in 1460 AD, the Siamese adopted the Chinese word peng to refer to a particular mass and today is used to refer to the bronze animal weights in general. In 1558 AD, Chiang Mai, the capital of the La-Na Kingdom, was sacked by the Burmese who destroyed the weights and measures system, and along with it, the currency of the kakim silver ingot. The Burmese introduced their own floral ingot as well its own standardization of weights and measures. It is likely that elephant weights were cast at this time and continued to be produced after the Burmese lost control in the second half of the 18th century. Following the departure of the Burmese, other animal shaped figurines made their appearance and it has been suggested that other than serve as weights, they were used as currency. In 1858 Siam began producing machine made coins eliminating the need for bronze figurines to serve as currency. Even so, animal shaped figurines continued to be cast. In Earth to Heaven, Donald and Joan gear suggest that the elephant weights originated in northern Siam rather than Laos.

Elephant Opium Weights
Elephant Opium Weights from Siam & Laos

The bases of Siamese weights were mostly octagonal and occasionally ellipse. The sides are commonly stepped and often vertically striated. Astrologers of the time were known to keep a set of these figurines used in predicting future outcomes. In general, elephant shaped weights have a sign marked on the base resembling the blades of a windmill. Occasionally, other animal shapes were also marked with a sign on the base, mostly in the form of radiating stars with 4,5,6,7 or 8 rays.

Bronze elephant weights from Siam (and Laos) were often used to weigh silver bullion, opium (which was widely used at the time), medicines, as well as a form of money. Mostly, the mass varied from 5 to 300 grams. A common feature of Siamese weights is that a small lump of bronze has been removed from the base to adjust the weight – evidence that the figurines were in fact used to weigh materials. Conversely, some weights appear to have been adjusted up in weight with a lump of solder between the legs. Early French travelers to Siam were suspicious that Siamese merchants kept two sets of weights of indistinguishable appearance – one slightly heavier set that were used when buying goods, and a lighter set to be used when selling. It’s clear on inspection of surviving examples that Siamese weights tend to be less accurate than Burmese weights.

Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac
Bronze Animal Opium Weights from the Solar Zodiac

Laos

Despite our efforts, we have not found any substantial written material specifically about opium weight production in Laos. During regular visits to Laos over the past 14 years we have seen and acquired a number of opium weights in the form of the elephant, lion-beast, the various animals from the solar zodiac, as well as some rarely seen forms such as the stag.   The Gears’ deduce in their guidebook, Earth to Heaven, that elephant weights, while not originating in Laos (as popularly thought), were cast there along with other animal forms. A  Laotian friend and enthusiastic antique collector was confident in telling us that opium weights were cast in the 19th century (and probably much earlier) in Phongsali, a town amongst the mountains in the far north of the country. She suggested that the weights were commonly used to weigh opium cultivated by the Hmong hill tribe people, as well as other precious items. Along with our friends who collect opium weights, we are often unable to distinguish between weights cast in Laos and those cast in Siam and so tend to group them together. Visit our opium weight collection.