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Masterpiece or mistake? Bishop Museum’s $7.5M question


    A statue of a Hawaiian war god bought at auction for about $7.5 million is now the centerpiece of a major exhibition in Honolulu. But some experts say it might not be as old, or as valuable, as the auction house claimed.


    A statue of a Hawaiian war god bought at auction for about $7.5 million is now the centerpiece of a major exhibition in Honolulu. But some experts say it might not be as old, or as valuable, as the auction house claimed.


    The Hawaiian Hall at the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum. The museum in Honolulu is the world’s largest collection of Polynesian cultural artifacts and natural history objects.

It was a generous gift — and one completely in tune with our cultural times.

In 2018, tech billionaire Marc Benioff donated a wooden statue of a Hawaiian war god he had bought at auction for about $7.5 million to the Bernice Pauahi Bishop Museum in Honolulu. The snarling, muscle-bound deity, known as “The Island Eater,” is now the centerpiece of a major exhibition there, exploring the role of traditional sculpture in Hawaiian culture and society.

This private act of restitution came amid a growing clamor for Western collections to return ethnographic artifacts to their places of origin.

Benioff, chairman and chief executive of software company Salesforce, said in a statement announcing the gift that he felt the sculpture “belonged in Hawaii, for the education and benefit of its people.”

At the sale in Paris, Christie’s said the wooden war god was about 200 years old. But now doubts have emerged about the sculpture’s age, inside and outside the Bishop Museum. Some international experts say the piece could be from the 20th century and worth less than $5,000.

“It’s the sort of thing you see in a tiki bar,” said Daniel Blau, an expert in the art of the Pacific islands who is based in Munich.

Such a wide discrepancy in valuation could be a concern for the IRS, should Benioff wish to claim the donation on his tax return, as well for museumgoers having to pay as much as $24.95 to see the sculpture in Honolulu.

Benioff, who would not comment for this article, currently has a net worth of about $6.8 billion, according to Forbes. In September, he bought Time magazine for $190 million. He strongly identifies with the spiritual values of Hawaii, where he owns a six-bedroom beachfront house. His desire to infuse the corporate culture of Salesforce with the “Aloha spirit” — including turning his employees’ Fridays into Hawaiian shirt days — has, however, led to accusations of cultural appropriation.

Now questions are being asked about Benioff’s act of cultural repatriation. The Christie’s sale in Paris was the last of several from the fabled private collection of Pierre Vérité and his son Claude, both highly regarded dealers in tribal art. The elder Vérité had the distinction of selling artifacts to Pablo Picasso, Henri Matisse and André Breton, among others.

Lot 153 in Christie’s sale was cataloged as “Hawaiian figure, kona style, circa 1780-1820, representing the god of war, ku ka ‘ili moku.” Hitherto unknown, with no documented history of ownership, the 21-inch sculpture, carved from wood of the Hawaiian metrosideros tree, was thought to have been acquired by Pierre Vérité from dealer and collector Marie-Ange Ciolkowska during the 1940s, according to Christie’s. It was estimated to sell for 2 million to 3 million euros ($2.3 million to $3.4 million).

“We couldn’t imagine that such a work could still exist in a private collection,” Susan Kloman, head of African and Oceanic art at Christie’s, said in the pre-auction promotional content for the Verité sale. “It’s an incredible discovery,” she added. “This figure could stand on the world stage.”

Kloman declined to comment on the doubts subsequently raised about the sculpture, but a Christie’s representative said last week in an email that it was “an important rediscovery that is sure to inspire continued scholarship and interest.”

Anthony Meyer, a dealer based in Paris and a specialist in Oceanic artworks, said: “I don’t think it’s a pre-contact or post-contact sculpture carved by someone with the belief systems of that period or place,” referring to Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawaii in 1778. “I think it’s made later, but I don’t know when,” Meyer added.

He added that if the sculpture is of a much later date, it could have a financial value of less than $5,000.

But Julian Harding, a respected private dealer and expert in Pacific Island artifacts, said in by telephone last week that he remained convinced that the wooden war god was “a masterpiece of Oceanic art.”

“If I had $7 million to spend,” he added, “I would have spent it on that figure.”

Harding said he had told Christie’s before the sale that the sculpture was the “mate” of a similar-looking figure made from the same type of wood in the British Museum; records show that sculpture was acquired by the London Missionary Society in Hawaii in 1822.

George Bennet, a voracious collector, was on that voyage, and Harding believes that the figure sold at Christie’s was very likely from his personal collection. “I’m 90 percent sure it’s a Bennet piece,” Harding said. This provenance, “George Bennet collection, London,” which has no documentary corroboration, was included in marketing materials from Christie’s.

Last fall, a fact-finding delegation of curators from the Bishop Museum visited experts in London and Paris, including Meyer, to investigate the history of the sculpture. The museum’s current “Transformative Images” exhibition, in which the figure is on show, presents it cautiously, describing it as “long held in a private French collection,” but not specifying when it was carved.

Melanie Ide, the museum’s president and chief executive, said the museum was aware of “a question about its history and provenance,” adding that curators were doing “additional research.” The wood has been scientifically analyzed, she said, adding that further DNA testing “may be informative.”

Blau and other experts point out that DNA testing can narrow down the age of the wood, but not when it was carved.

Adrienne Kaeppler, curator of Oceanic Ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington and one of the world’s foremost experts on Hawaiian art, said in an email that Christie’s had contacted her about the figure before the sale. “I told them it looked like a similar replica of the sculpture in the British Museum, only smaller,” Kaeppler said. “I was concerned that its history only went back to the 1930s.”

A spokeswoman for Christie’s said Kaeppler had only seen photographs of the sculpture and had not viewed it person.

The issue could be given closure if Benioff were to claim a charitable tax deduction for his $7.5 million donation to the Bishop Museum. Having been bought at auction for more than $50,000, the sculpture would have to be appraised by the IRS Art Advisory Panel, which would recommend a true market value.

“The IRS generally won’t accept an auction receipt as an appraisal,” said David Shapiro, a senior appraiser at Victor Wiener Associates in New York. “The IRS requires an appraisal, and at this level the Art Advisory Panel will take a good look at it. Values of an ethnographic artwork can be wildly different if there are doubts about it.”

But Shapiro also pointed out that donated artworks generally qualify for significant tax deductions only if they have been owned by a collector for at least a year. This was not the case with Benioff’s Hawaiian sculpture.

Benioff said through a Salesforce spokeswoman that he would not comment for this article, and did not respond to further emails asking if he intended his gift to be tax-deductible.

And so the debate, and the uncertainty, goes on. Marques Marzan, a cultural adviser at the Bishop Museum who has been coordinating the museum’s research, said that a date for the donated sculpture “cannot be confirmed at this time.”

But, he added, the exhibition in which it is featured focuses on what this enigmatic Hawaiian sculpture “represents to the living people today.”

“Provenance and dates are helpful in better understanding the cultural and global context of objects,” Marzan said. “But if a piece cannot provoke discussion or appreciation, what really is it worth?”

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