Cook Islands Carving Fetches $1.5 Million At Paris Auction

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Sotheby’s Oceanic art sale nets record $9.4 million

By Rod Dixon

RAROTONGA, Cook Islands (Cook Islands News, Dec. 13, 2014) – A Rarotongan carving sold for $1,554,369 (€1,201,500) [US$1.5 million] at an auction sale in Paris on September 16 this year.

The Rarotongan carving was one of 49 objects in the Murray Frum collection of Oceanic art auctioned by Sotheby’s Paris, with an overall auction value of almost $10 million (€7,530,838) [US$9.4 million] - a new record for Oceanic art.

The carving was formerly part of the James Hooper Collection.

The auction catalogue and most scholarly literature refers to these carvings as "Rarotongan god staffs" but former Canterbury Museum curator Roger Duff believed, "Evidence is strongest for believing the god to be Tangaroa, supreme deity of the Cook Islands pantheon." (Duff, 1969; 61)

Recent research by Mike Tavioni and Rod Dixon has confirmed Duff’s speculation that the ‘staff gods’ in fact represent the Rarotongan god Tangaroa.

The carved head was originally part of a more extensive carving comprising, " a piece of aito, or ironwood, about four inches in diameter, carved with a rude imitation of the human head at one end, and with an obscene figure [phallus] at the other, wrapped round with native cloth until it became two or three yards in circumference.

Near the wood were red feathers, and a string of small pieces of polished pearl shell, which were said to be the manava or soul of the god." (Rev. John Williams 1837;30)

The Sothebys catalogue is more complimentary of the skill of the Rarotongan carver – "Sculpture from Rarotonga is noted for its great beauty and complexity. [The ethnographer Edward Dodd]

Dodd states that Rarotongan sculptors "were in some ways the ultimate masters".

"They could execute the most intricate fretwork… and beautifully controlled rhythmic decorations, but best of all they appreciated the virtues of restraint and spoke most eloquently on plain surfaces." (Dodd, 1967, p. 255)

Specialist carvers created these objects from exceptionally dense and hard ironwood (Casaurina equisetifolia) using shell, stone, and tooth tools - all that were available to them prior to the arrival of metal as an exchange item.

The remarkable open-work carving of the small attendant figures [beneath the head of the atua] in particular represents a tour-de-force of balance and technique.

The Hooper staff god possesses remarkable finesse and is amongst the most refined of the corpus of just 17 examples.

The highly individual carving style is entirely distinctive to Rarotonga. Particularly characteristic are the large domed forehead and the elliptical form of the eyes, ears, and mouth, which form an almost hypnotic rhythm.

The impression of austere dignity is compounded by the slight forward tilt of the head.

Three secondary figures are held between the arms of the principal figure. Another figure, seemingly female, is carved on the back, where there are a series of vertebrae like notches which may be a reference to the genealogy of the royal family.

Few people today are aware of the size of these Tangaroas, which ranged in size from about 73 cm to six or more metres.

Of the corpus of 17 known large-scale staff god figures, only two, one in the British Museum, London and another in the Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh, have survived intact.

According to the Sothebys sale catalogue, the remainder were cut down, like the Hooper staff god, presumably to aid in transporting the sculptures to England and to eliminate the phallic end, which was considered obscene.

Murray Frum, made his fortune developing suburban strip shopping malls in Toronto, Canada and later developed a large collection of Mexican, African and Oceanic art. He died in May 2013. A part of his collection was donated to the Art Gallery of Ontario.

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