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Anonymous donor leaves royal chair at Art Center

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    An antique armchair donated to the Academy Art Center at Linekona has been identified as one in a set made for the Iolani Palace Blue Room 150 years ago. Franklyn Donahue, head of art maintenance at the Honolulu Academy of Arts, moved the chair from the art center Friday. It will be returned to the palace.
    This Victorian upholstered high-back armchair was donated to the Academy of Arts. The chair was made in the 1860s and resided in Iolani Palace’s Blue Room.

When a donated antique chair was left on the front steps of the Academy Art Center at Linekona on Thursday, the art school thought it found a pretty new perch for its nude models.

Those plans changed when they found out the chair — commissioned by Queen Liliuokalani for the Iolani Palace Blue Room — was a priceless relic of the monarchy.

"It just showed up," said center Director Vince Hazen. "(The donor) probably thought he was dropping off a piece of furniture."

Iolani Palace Collections Manager Malia Van Heukelem identified the chair as a Blue Room chair while coincidentally passing through the building a few hours after it was unceremoniously dropped off on the Art Center steps. Because the chair’s original paint faded over the years and its blue upholstery had been replaced with red velvet, Van Heukelem said she was not sure whether the chair was the real thing or one of many replicas made in the 1930s.

"I wasn’t immediately certain it was a palace chair," she said. "To just stumble upon it was really great."

The 150-year-old Blue Room chair is made of black walnut carved with an ornate grape-and-grape-leaf pattern along its back and legs. The oversize chair was originally gilded along its back and legs, and upholstered in blue satin to match the Blue Room’s decor, Van Heukelem said.

The piece is believed to have been made for the original Iolani Palace in the 1860s (the structure we know as the palace opened in 1882), and one of just 10 chairs ordered to be refurbished by Queen Liliuokalani in 1892. Having survived the monarchy’s overthrow just a year later, the chairs were eventually auctioned off in 1900, when the new American leadership turned the royal compound into the headquarters of the provisional government. The chairs sat in private collections across the globe for seven decades before the museum began a campaign to reclaim its belongings in the late 1960s.

"It’s a significant find to find a piece of furniture this large," Van Heukelem said. "That’s what we all dream about, trying to find things that belong to the palace."

Although no one from the Academy was available to meet with the donor, a note left with the chair said it came from the Estate of Herminia Laola Ross, a Honolulu woman who died last year. According to Van Heukelem, the palace had been in contact with Ross about the chair since the late 1970s but had not heard from her in more than 10 years.

"Many of these pieces became family heirlooms," said Iolani Palace spokesman Lance Rae. "In some cases the palace was able to keep track of where these items have gone."

The chair that was left at the Academy Art Center is not the first to serendipitously find its way home. According to Rae, another Blue Room chair was found in 1976 by an acquisitions researcher who happened to spot the piece of furniture in the garage of a local home. The chair was left outside of the home to be picked up by an upholsterer that morning and was unexpectedly spotted by the Iolani Palace employee as she was driving by.

The Academy of Arts plans to return the chair to Iolani Palace next week. Though happy to facilitate the chair’s donation back to its home in the palace, the Academy says the gift was completely unsolicited and that it generally does not accept art donations from the public.

"It’s highly irregular that someone would just leave something here," said Academy spokeswoman Lesa Griffith. "We don’t encourage people to do that."


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