A rare and unusual Hawaiian ornament
Lot 1411
A rare and unusual Hawaiian ornament
Sold for US$ 8,225 inc. premium
Lot Details
Property of various owners
A rare and unusual Hawaiian bone wrist ornament
Kupe'e palaoa, the domed circular disc set with three human molars about the topside shoulder, drilled underneath on the flat base for fastening to a wrist cord, remains of a thick red material, possibly trade sealing wax or a plant resin.
diameter 1 7/8in
See illustration


  • Extant examples of kup'e palaoa are included in three historic, published collections: the Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts, catalogued by the Journal of the Polynesian Society in 1943; the James T. Hooper Collection, catalogued by Steven Phelps in 1976; and the Bishop Museum's J.S. Emerson Collection, catalogued by Catherine C. Summers in 1999. In notes made while collecting in the nineteenth century, Emerson stated that the kup'e palaoa was "a characteristic Hawaiian ornament of the olden times." In fact, Queen Kaahumanu, favorite wife of Kamehameha I, was depicted wearing such an ornament in a painting by Louis Choris, who visited Hawaii in 1816-17. Based on the variety of known shapes - circles, ovals, rectangles, etc., - there appears to be no singular form for this ornament. The manner of drilling the underside of these ornaments, however exhibits little variation. Peter H. Buck, former Director of Hawaii's Bishop Museum discusses wrist ornaments at length in his volume "Arts and Crafts of Hawaii." Therein he illustrates examples of kup'e palaoa, including underside views that define characteristic Hawaiian drilling patterns, comparable to the present example. While most kup'e palaoa are made of marine ivory another similar bone example is catalogued in the Hooper Collection (Phelps, pl. 40, artifact 347). Phelps suggested that this "unusual" bone kup'e palaoa may be the precursor of the ivory examples and noted that a similar evolution has been proposed for the development of lei niho palaoa, the hook-shaped Hawaiian pendant of status. It is more commonly found in marine ivory, but does exists in a few older examples made of bone, shell or coral. The use of human teeth as a decorative element in Hawaiian art and material culture is well documented. Examples of statues and game boards survive with human teeth; and most notably, royal food scrap bowls in the British Museum and the Bishop Museum display numerous imbedded teeth. In "Island Ancestors, Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection" by Allen Wardwell, he illustrates a Hawaiian wood club, possibly unique for its human teeth inlays. The author suggests such decorative use of teeth may well have been strictly a chiefly prerogative.