Rarotonga pole club leads Art of the South Seas auction at Bonhams

10 Feb 2013, Art of the South Seas
Art of the South Seas

Rarotonga pole club leads Art of the South Seas auction at Bonhams

10 Feb 2013, Art of the South Seas

San Francisco–The second-ever annual Art of the South Seas auction, February 10 at Bonhams in San Francisco, achieved a successful total of $409,550. The auction of Polynesian, Micronesian, Melanesian, Indonesian and Australian works of art was highlighted by an important and rare Rarotonga pole club ('akatara) of the Cook Islands, carved from the heart (taiki) of the toa (ironwood) tree, which sold to an important American museum for $60,500. Clubs of this type were typically created for chiefs or members of high status within society. This more than 7-foot-tall club example was acquired at a London auction in 1990, and was formerly in the highly-acclaimed James Hooper Collection.

Highly notable in the sale was a Marquesas Islands Club, 'u'u, which brought $43,750, surpassing its estimate of $30,000-40,000. Historically, 'u'u clubs were a Marquesan warrior's most prized possession, serving as both a weapon in close contact and a mark of high status within society. This ironwood example was finely carved, featuring raised decorations on both sides of its head, with rich, dark-brown glossy patina.

Fredric Backlar, Specialist of African, Oceanic & Pre-Columbian Art at Bonhams, said of the auction, "We are extremely pleased with the results of today's sale, which clearly demonstrates the strong and rising demand for good quality, fresh-to-the-market works at all price levels. We were excited to see spirited bidding from a wide range of both new and seasoned, domestic and international collectors, competing for these rare and precious works of art, skillfully created by these exceptional artists of the South Seas for use within their cultures."

A headrest from the Tonga Island stood out in the sale, selling for $37,500 and far exceeding its pre-sale estimate of $8,000-12,000. The headrest featured an intricate mother-of-pearl shell inlay on its upper surface.

Another notable offering which flew past its pre-sale estimate of $8,000-12,000 was an important and rare collection of decorated barkcloth, kapa, from the Hawaiian Islands, sold for $25,000. The collection consisted of 136 pieces in a variety of patterns, designs and motifs, professionally enclosed in an elegantly designed and constructed notebook and box cover. Also notable from the Hawaiian Islands came a wood, stone, shell and olona fiber octopus/squid lure, or luhe'e, for primary use in shallow waters, accompanied by its original olona cord bindings and kauila wood hook, sold for $8,125, ahead of a $4,000-6,000 estimate.

Comprising items from various islands was the Joseph E. Kennedy Collection, Hawaii. Bonhams is proud to have offered items from this collection. Mr. Kennedy was a Hawaiian archeologist, well-known and respected as the principal of Archeological Consultants of Hawaii, and later, Archeological Consultants of the Pacific. He conducted archeological research in American Samoa and in Micronesia, and he participated in excavations in Guatemala and Egypt. His collection included an exceptional and unusually large wood bowl, or umeke la'au pakaka, which sold for $10,625. The bowl was likely pre-contact, stone and shell carved from kou wood with delicate thin walls and an original kukui nut oil finish. Also of note from the collection was a navigational chart from the Marshall Islands, made of wood, shell and fiber, which Kennedy later labeled with indigenous phonetic names of the stars and planets in the constellation. It claimed $8,750 – far beyond its pre-sale estimate of $800-1,200. The chart speaks to the advanced navigational knowledge of Marshall Islands inhabitants at the time it was made.

Highlights of the sale went on to include a ceremonial wood paddle from the Austral Islands, likely used as a dance implement, that sold for $12,250, ahead of an estimate of $4,000-6,000, and a coconut shell Kava cup from the Marquesas Islands, with a finely decorated tiki image on its bottom, sold for $9,375, far ahead of a $1,200-1,800 estimate.


Bonhams, founded in 1793, is one of the world's largest auctioneers of fine art and antiques. The present company was formed by the merger in November 2001 of Bonhams & Brooks and Phillips Son & Neale. In August 2002, the company acquired Butterfields, the principal firm of auctioneers on the West Coast of America. Today, Bonhams offers more sales than any of its rivals, through two major salerooms in London: New Bond Street and Knightsbridge; and a further three in the UK regions and Scotland. Sales are also held in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Carmel, New York and Connecticut in the USA; and Germany, France, Monaco, Hong Kong and Australia. Bonhams has a worldwide network of offices and regional representatives in 25 countries offering sales advice and valuation services in 60 specialist areas. For a full listing of upcoming sales, plus details of Bonhams specialist departments go to www.bonhams.com

  1. Joalien Johnson
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