Christies Hawaiian Figure - Is It Real? Christmas 2017

On November 21, 2017 Christie's auction house in Paris sold a Hawaiian figure for 6.3 million euros or about 7.5 million dollars. I have no problem stating that I am blown away by this sculpture and would enjoy the opportunity of staring at it for the remainder of the time I have on this planet. But maybe that's not the point. I have been in business now for 43 years and seriously authenticating for around three decades. There are some serious problems in the way Christie's offered this piece and it may come back to haunt them in the near future.

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The basic methodology of authentication is both straightforward and simple.  The process, however, also can be extremely complex and nuanced. The basic part is about understanding the problem and then breaking it down to its simplest terms. Before as an authenticator you can make that important determination, you need to know first where it’s been, where it has been exhibited, whether it has been published, whether any major experts have looked at it, whether it fits within the stylistic parameters of known pieces, and who has owned it. All that information fits into the expertise of the art historian. The second thing I want to know is what's going on with the piece. Has it been conserved, has it been restored, does it have condition issues, is it intact and do all the parts belong that comprise the total piece. This area is easily handled by the art conservator. My final expert is the materials tester who will work closely with conservator to determine whether any scientific testing to determine age or material identification is appropriate. Once I get the information back from all these experts I can then compile and analyse the data to make a determination whether the object in question has been made for traditional purposes to be used ceremonially by the appropriate ethnic group.

Art Historical Analysis

Nobody would argue that the Vérité Hawaiian figure was important enough to spare no expense or time to remove any doubts as to whether this object was by the definition I have used above authentic. Christie's did not make the case for authenticity in accordance with the accepted standards and methodology which I have outlined above. And quite frankly I don't get it, because even the inexperienced buyer once they knew what was expected can see from the catalog that there is a lot missing.

First, we need to hire an art historian. Obviously, we are going to locate the top people in this field. We should contact first Adrienne Kaeppler:

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"Adrienne Lois Kaeppler (born 1935) is an American anthropologist, curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the National Museum of Natural History at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.[1] Since 2005, she has been President of the International Council on Traditional Music.[2] Her research focuses on the interrelationships between social structure and the arts, including dance, music, and the visual arts, especially in Tonga and Hawaii.[3] She is considered to be an expert on Tongan dance, and the voyages of the 18th-century explorer James Cook."

Kaeppler has written extensively on Hawaii and its ethnographic history and would be my first choice for this assignment.

I would also contact Stephen Hooper:

"Specialises in the arts of the Pacific region and North America. His main interests cover the relationship between Polynesian material culture, chiefship, valuables and exchange, ethnohistory, cultural property, ethnographical museums, the art market, publishing, book production and design. He completed his doctorate in social anthropology at the University of Cambridge, having conducted fieldwork in Fiji.

His publications include Art & Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa & the Americas: the James Hooper Collection (1976), The Fiji Journals of Baron Anatole von Hügel, 1875-77 (1990), the three-volume Robert & Lisa Sainsbury Collection (1997, Yale University Press, editor and part author); Memorial Images of Eastern Fiji: materials, metaphors and meanings. In: Herle, A. et al. (eds.), Pacific Art: persistence, change and meaning. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press. pp. 309-323 (2002) and Pacific Encounters: art and divinity in Polynesia 1760-1860, British Museum Press (2006).

The 'Pacific Encounters' publication accompanied a major exhibition of the same name which was shown at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in May-August 2006, itself the culmination of the Polynesian Visual Arts Project. In 2008 the exhibition was re-presented at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris as 'Polynésie: arts et divinités 1760-1860', co-curated by Steven Hooper and Karen Jacobs. The Paris exhibition closed in September 2008 with a ceremony led by UK-based Polynesian people Rosanna Raymond, Maia Jessop and George Nuku, and by members of the French Polynesian community in Paris. After a circuit of the exhibition, a poem by Rosanna Raymond and celebratory dances by the French Polynesians, a plexiglass hei tiki made by the artist George Nuku was presented to the Musée du quai Branly to embody the continuing link between the museum and the descendants of the artists who had made the historical treasures featured in the exhibition. The Delegation Polynésie Française afterwards hosted a reception for visiting Polynesians and all those involved in the making of the exhibition, attended by Sarah Dennis, New Zealand ambassador to France.

Professor Hooper is currently researching and writing articles and a monograph on Polynesian and Fijian art history and anthropology as part of the AHRC-sponsored Fijian Art Research project. An exhibition resulting from the project will open at the Sainsbury Centre for Visual Arts in Spring 2016."

Finally, we would make one more call to Mike Gunn who as an author, scholar and curator worked at the Northern Territory Museum in Darwin, The Metropolitan Museum in New York, The Saint Louis Art Museum, and most recently at the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra:

"From 1994 to 1999 Dr Gunn was Associate Curator in the Department of Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. Dr Gunn has worked on numerous exhibitions and gallery displays. Most importantly he worked with Philippe Peltier at the Musée du Quai Branly in Paris on the New Ireland – Art of the South Pacific exhibition. This exhibition opened in Saint Louis in 2006 and travelled to Paris and Berlin.


Dr Gunn was President of the International Pacific Arts Association, 2007-2013. “Michael has been a tremendous asset to the Saint Louis Art Museum during his tenure here,” said Saint Louis Art Museum Director Brent R Benjamin. “We are deeply proud of his many achievements, and wish him every success in Australia.”

In 2014 Gunn opened the highly acclaimed exhibition "Atua" featuring "Sacred Gods from Polynesia.

Ok we have our experts. Did Christies contact them? Simply stated as noted below the answer is no.

In an interview with KHNL and KGMB TV stations in Honolulu on December 1,2017 Mark Blackburn, a noted expert and collector of Hawaiian material, reported that he had been in touch with Adrienne Kaeppler who is currently in Samoa and had stated "I was not involved and as far as I know it has not been authenticated". Clearly that statement indicates that she certainly did not confirm Christie's assessment of either the date of origin or authenticity of the Hawaiian figure.

“I have personally been in touch with Steven Hooper who stated that his position with the Sainsbury Research Unit does not permit him to consult for auction houses. Beyond that statement he had no comment on the Christie's Hawaiian figure in question.”

Finally, Mike Gunn stated to me that he was not consulted by Christies for this catalog nor as a part of the extensive research they indicated that they completed on this figure before offering it for sale.

At this point based of what we have learned above, I am baffled at the unsubstantiated information Christie's provided in the auction catalog. Who did the research and who gave the OK for the final draft of the catalog entry for this object? All good questions that will probably never be answered.

In the absence of a named scholar we must assume the catalog is based on the research available on the internet and in the literature. So how did they do?

1. In the Christie's catalog the statement is made "The figures that we know are in museums, including what we consider the mate to this piece, which is in the British Museum.’

This link takes us to the British Museum figure Oc1839,0426.8 described as:

BM Kona large figure.jpg

"Temple image figure (ki'i), Ku-ka'ili-moku (the god Ku, the island snatcher) carved from a single piece of breadfruit wood (Artocarpus altilis). Kona in style, with an open-mouthed grimace, slightly flexed arms and legs. Four rows of stylised pigs or dog’s heads run from the bridge of the nose across tops of eyes and top of head, the bottom row merging with eyes, before drooping down to heels.

School/style     Kona (in style)

Date:     1790-1819

Materials: breadfruit tree wood (Artocarpus altilis)

Dimensions: Height: 267 centimetres

This is certainly not the mate to the Christies piece which is smaller, different wood, and stylistically different.

The object from the British Museum that is closer stylistically to the Christies figure is:

Museum number     Oc,LMS.223

Description: Temple image figure made of wood (Metrosideros sp), probably represents Ku-ka’ili- moku the god of war.

Date: 18thC(late)-19thC(early) (before 1822)

Dimensions: Height: 130 centimetres

Acquisition name: Purchased from: London Missionary Society biography

Acquisition date: 1911

Acquisition notes: Collected by the London Missionary Society in 1822.

Note this figure is made of the same wood as the Christie's piece.

OK so we have three colossal figures that are now in The Bishop Museum in Honolulu, the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem Massachusetts and the British Museum in London. The three smaller Kona style figures are found in the British Museum (2) and the Pitt Rivers Museum on Oxford England (see Hawaiian Sculpture, Cox and Davenport, 1974 pp. 120 -124). The Christie's figure appears to be the fourth smaller Kona style figure.

2. Christies catalog: " this Hawaiian figure was made sometime between 1780 and 1819 — a period considered the height of Hawaiian artistic production. That era in Hawaiian history is linked to the reign of Kamehameha I, called the ‘unifier of the islands’, Kloman explains. It was a turbulent time, and Kamehameha I associated himself with the war god Ku-ka’ili-moku — the ‘land snatcher’ or ‘island eater’. ‘Ku became his effigy, and we saw a proliferation of these sculptures created for the temples,’ the specialist says. As Hawaiian society at that time was highly stratified, the artists who were allowed to create these sculptures, for kings and queens, were effectively priests."

Do we have enough information to support a definitive statement that this figure was made for traditional purposes between 1780 and 1819 during the reign of Kamehameha I.

Simply stated no. The literature offers us other viable scenarios noted below by both Kaeppler and Gunn.

"Specialized carvers probably continued to ply their trade and sold their new creations to visiting ships. By 1824, 'the officers of H.B.M. ship Blonde, when here, were anxious to procure some of the ancient idols, to carry home as curios. The demand soon exhausted the stock on hand: to supply the deficiency the Hawaiians made idols, and smoked them, to impart an appearance of antiquity, and succeeded in the deception. (W.S.W. Ruschenberger. A Voyage Round the World Including an Embassy to Muscat and Siam in 1835, 1836, and 1837 (Philadelphia, 1838, 455.) cited from The Pacific Arts of Polynesia and Micronesia, Kaeppler, 2008, p. 76

"It could have been made as a replacement piece, then sold before it was used in a heiau, we just don’t know.  What I was looking at was the lack of weathering and at the split in the wood of the BM’s almost identical piece which indicated to me that the BM piece was made in a hurry.  Similar looking figures were depicted by Louis Choris in his ink wash and watercolour over pencil drawing “Temple on the island of Hawaii” 1816. [Gunn, email comment, November 29, 2017]

- When Cook arrived metal was swiftly traded and spread rapidly throughout the archipelago. If that figure was in fact made in the 1821-1829 period, hundreds of Western ships had already visited the Hawaiian archipelago and metal tools were everywhere. Once the people converted to Christianity, they burnt a lot of their wood images, and sold many more. When they found that sailors and other Westerners would buy their objects they rapidly started to make new ones. " Mike Gunn, email comment, November 29, 2017.

None of the three scholars were consulted by Christie's. From their writings, Kaeppler and Gunn, who have not seen the Verite piece in person, have expressed doubts. Considering the various sources cited above and the early drawings of Louis Choris in 1816 it is my judgment that only the three monumental Kona style figures at Peabody Essex, British Museum, and the Bishop are unassailable as having been made for traditional Hawaiian purposes.

Kaeppler offers the following useful classification:

"I find it useful to analyse Hawaiian objects within a framework of four potential categories—traditional, evolved traditional, folk, and airport art varieties.

Traditional in this scheme refers to objects as they were produced and in use at or before the time of first European contact. Statements about traditional objects must be based on pieces that have precise documentation which can trace them to collection during the sojourn of Cook's ships in Hawaii on his third Pacific voyage (Cook died on this voyage January 17, 1779). If objects from later voyages to the area are used they must be assessed in terms of possible influence from earlier voyages i.e., objects collected on Vancouver's voyage must be assessed in terms of possible influence from Cook's voyage. Detailed ethnohistoric research on Cook's voyages was necessary for this aspect of the overall framework of analysis.

Evolved traditional in this scheme refers to objects which are a continuation of traditional styles, or styles that have evolved along indigenous lines retaining traditional basic structure and sentiment. Such objects may be made with metal tools, which often made possible more intricate designs; they may be made of similar but introduced raw material—for example, the substitution of walrus ivory for whale ivory.

Kamehameha I's death in 1819, the influence of Christian missionaries and the increasing number of visiting ships all contributed to a significant rejection of state gods and religion. As both Gunn and Kaeppler noted, figures were burned, traded, and reproduced by the followers that previously were subjects of Kamehameha I.

Condition Report

To my knowledge Christies never made the condition report public.

Materials and Dating Analysis

Scientific Research

Applicable analysis techniques - Every object presents its own unique set of requirements for analysis. Authoritative Sources must be consulted to guide in the selection of appropriate analytical techniques. Wherever possible, multiple techniques should be utilized to confirm results and conclusions. Testing techniques that might impact or limit future analyses need to be carefully considered before use. One potential issue may be the lack of consent for analysis methods that affect the object; e.g., taking required samples, CT scanning, radiographs, etc. 

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In instances where the owner will not allow the object to be thoroughly tested and where this type of testing is the only means to help authenticate the object, no determination can or should ever be made. Scientific analysis - Analyses should be performed by qualified individuals observing all the protocols and quality standards appropriate to the techniques employed. The report for each test performed should not only document the findings and conclusions (with appropriate descriptions) but should also document the equipment and methods employed to produce the results. The limitations of the method, including any exposure to fakery, must be fully explained. Critical to this process is the ability to differentiate natural vs. artificially induced effects. If an attribute is found to be consistent with authenticity but cannot be differentiated from effects that can be artificially (or otherwise) created, it cannot be given the same weight and must be considered inconclusive. However, the issue of differentiation must not discourage appropriate analysis, as most testing is geared toward the identification of attributes that are known to be inconsistent with authentic examples. Rigorous testing should always attempt to eliminate as many inconsistent attributes as possible thereby increasing the confidence (but not proving) that the object is authentic. Again, Authoritative Sources must be consulted to guide in the selection of the appropriate and applicable analytical techniques.

In addition, the precision and detection limits of the techniques and equipment must be fully disclosed. The standard that should be applied to the testing report is that it must contain sufficient detail to facilitate auditing by a qualified third party who could verify the methodology, technique, results, and interpretation. Reports that do not establish applicability (of the testing technique) or fail to relate results to established standards should be considered invalid. Reports that offer data or conclusions with no explanation of how they were derived must also be considered invalid. The final step in the scientific analysis process is to work with Authoritative Sources to interpret the results of the analysis/testing correctly and accurately compare them with definitive sources and/or statistically relevant expected norms.

Wood test - in this case the wood analysis test which we have not seen concluded that the wood used in the Vérité Hawaiian figure is Metrosideros. If the smaller Kona style figures could be documented as being made for traditional purposes, this data might be considered a positive step in supporting authentication. To my knowledge none of the Kona style smaller figures have been authenticated by any reputable Hawaiian expert. And in fact, it is possible that finding Metrosideros could be considered a negative in that the known accepted authentic Hawaiian figures are made from breadfruit wood. 

C14 - This test has been offered in many forums as the final determination for testing the age of organic material. Radiometric C14 dating and the newer AMS C14 dating are the two options for this type of testing. Christies never mentioned which method they used nor did they publish their test results other than to say that the results supported their contention that the object was being made between 1780 and 1820.

The Limitations of Carbon 14 Dating

Using this technique, almost any sample of organic material can be directly dated. There are many limitations, however.

    First, the size of the archaeological sample is important. Larger samples are better, because purification and distillation remove some matter. Although new techniques for working with very small samples have been developed, like accelerator dating, these are very expensive and still somewhat experimental.

    Second, great care must be taken in collecting and packing samples to avoid contamination by more recent carbon. For each sample, clean trowels should be used, to avoid cross contamination between samples. The samples should be packaged in chemically neutral materials to avoid picking up new C-14 from the packaging. The packaging should also be airtight to avoid contact with atmospheric C-14. Also, the stratigraphy should be carefully examined to determine that a carbon sample location was not contaminated by carbon from a later or an earlier period.

    Third, because the decay rate is logarithmic, radiocarbon dating has significant upper and lower limits. It is not very accurate for recent deposits. In recent deposits, so little decay has occurred that the error factor (the standard deviation) may be larger than the date obtained. The practical upper limit is about 50,000 years, because so little C-14 remains after almost 9 half-lives that it may be hard to detect and obtain an accurate reading, regardless of the size of the sample.

    Fourth, C14 dating can give an estimate of the age of the wood, not the date the wood was carved into an art work. Gunn found a 400-year anomaly in the C14 dates given for the Te Rauparaha canoe figure now in the National Gallery of Australia in Canberra. Two reputable dating labs gave four calibrated C14 dates between 1314 AD and 1452 AD, yet the figure was sketched when it was part of Te Rauparaha's waka (canoe) by George French Angas in 1844. (see Gunn 2014 Atua - sacred gods from Polynesia for an image of the figure.


AMS C14 Dating

"Accelerator Mass Spectrometry (AMS) is a technique for measuring the concentrations of rare isotopes that cannot be detected with conventional mass spectrometers. The original, and best known, application of AMS is radiocarbon dating....Radiocarbon dating by AMS is now used by many museums and dealers in antiquities to authenticate the age of objects, such as wood carvings and textiles. The small samples required for AMS mean that it is possible to remove a sample for dating without significantly damaging the object. "

The AMS dating requires a small sample, is significantly more expensive and considered to be more accurate that standard C14 testing. For obvious reasons testing facilities are reluctant to publish standard deviations from their findings which is expressed in a plus and minus sign. The possible result on the Hawaiian figure might be 200 +/- 100 years BP (before 1950). Translated that date would 1750 +/- 100 or 1650 - 1850. From all the research and experts, I have consulted you could never with all the sample variations have a standard variation with even AMS testing that would give a window of forty years (1780 - 1820). This highly unlikely and would be a document that would need to be produced.

Now having analysed this reliability of C14 testing even if we assume that the date of the wood does fall between 1780 and 1820 what does it prove? Really nothing because old wood could be carved much later. Now there is testing methodology that could address this, but if it was done Christie's never mentioned it.

Susan Kloman described her method of authentication as "Morellian". For those of you like me that had no idea what she was talking about, here is the Wikipedia description of the methodology:

"The Morellian method is based on clues offered by trifling details rather than identities of composition and subject matter or other broad treatments that are more likely to be seized upon by students, copyists and imitators. Instead, as Carlo Ginzburg analysed the Morellian method, the art historian operates in the manner of a detective, "each discovering, from clues unnoticed by others, the author in one case of a crime, in the other of a painting". These unconscious traces— in the shorthand for rendering the folds of an ear in secondary figures of a composition, for example— are unlikely to be imitated and, once deciphered, serve as fingerprints do at the scene of the crime. The identity of the artist is expressed most reliably in the details that are least attended to. The Morellian method has its nearest roots in Morelli's own discipline of medicine, with its identification of disease through numerous symptoms, each of which may be apparently trivial in itself." Again, I am bewildered by the choice of language in attempting to justify this authentication of the Hawaiian figure.

Christies is sticking to their story and claiming they have extensively researched this Hawaiian figure. Unfortunately, that statement is just not true. How this will sort out is anyone's guess.