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An incredibly rare Hawaiian sculpture of the war god known as ‘the island eater’

Carved some 200 years ago at the height of the islands’ artistic production, figures such as this Kona effigy are almost unknown in private collections. Offered in Paris on 21 November, it left Susan Kloman, Head of African and Oceanic Art, lost for words

‘When I first saw this figure I was astonished — really speechless,’ says Susan Kloman, Head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie’s. ‘We couldn’t imagine that such a work could still exist in a private collection. The figures that we know are in museums, including what we consider the mate to this piece, which is in the British Museum.’

Offered on 21 November in the Collection Vérité  sale at Christie’s in Paris, this Hawaiian figure was made sometime between 1780 and 1819 — a period considered the height of Hawaiian artistic production.

Important Hawaiian Kona-style statue, circa 1780-1820, representing the god of war Ku-ka’ili-moku. 53  cm (21  in). Estimate on request. This lot is offered in Collection Vérité on 21 November 2017  at Christie’s in Paris

Important Hawaiian Kona-style statue, circa 1780-1820, representing the god of war Ku-ka’ili-moku. 53 cm (21 in). Estimate on request. This lot is offered in Collection Vérité on 21 November 2017 at Christie’s in Paris

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.

‘This figure could stand on the world stage with any sculptures, and it would captivate and hold anyone’s attention’ — Susan Kloman

The figure was executed in a highly expressionistic style called Kona, here exemplified by a figure-eight-shaped mouth, distended eyes, and a head crest. When all these elements combine in a single piece, as in this figure, the result is ‘extremely powerful’, the specialist says.

Hawaiian figurative sculptures are incredibly rare, and Kloman and her team were meticulous in their verification of the piece. Authentication experts ‘analysed every single detail of how this work was carved,’ she explains. ‘They also did a carbon-14 test, which gives a better indication of the age of the sculpture.’ Analysis of the wood revealed it to be Metrosideros, a tree found in the high mountains of Hawaii.

‘It’s an incredible discovery,’ Kloman says. ‘This figure could stand on the world stage with any sculptures, and it would captivate and hold anyone’s attention.’