Polynesian stilt step may bring $50,000 in inaugural Oceanic artifact auction

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SAN FRANCISCO — Seasoned and entry-level Oceanic Art collectors will have plenty from which to choose at Bonhams’ inaugural auction solely devoted to the topic. The Feb. 11 event will feature 150 lots of original, diverse works from the regions of Polynesia, Melanesia, Micronesia, Indonesia and Australia. The auction’s timing coincides with the 26th Annual San Francisco Tribal & Textile Arts Show to be held Feb. 10-12 at the Fort Mason Center.

New Zealand artifactEstimated at $6,000 to $8,000, this finely carved Maori greenstone amulet (hei tiki) from New Zealand measures 3 3/8 inches high and has mother-of-pearl (Haliotis) shell-inlay eyes, faint remnants of carving on the face and belly indicative of much wear and handling and two suspension holes on the reverse, one worn through and the other inset with a later gold ring.

Leading the Oceanic Art auction at Bonhams will be a rare and important Rarotonga or Atiu pole-club, “akatara,” of the Cook Islands (estimate $75,000-$100,000), with provenance from Arthur Sewall (1835-1900) of Bath, Maine, thence by descent. Seawall, who was one of the earliest and most prominent shipbuilders of bath, was the U.S. vice presidential candidate on the ticket William Bryan in 1896. His son,

Harold Marsh Sewall (1860-1924), joined his father’s business after completing his education. Harold also served as general consul to Samoa under Presidents Grover Cleveland and William Henry Harrison and minister to Hawaii under President William McKinley until the time of its annexation. The Sewall family can be traced back to Henry Sewall (1624-1663), secretary of Maryland.

The pole-club is carved from the heart (taiki) of the toa (ironwood) tree with an exquisitely carved broad, scalloped blade with a needle-form tip. Its collar has two “eye” motifs on each side, and its butt features a chevron design; it is beautifully finished with a rich, dark-brown patina.


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Marquesas Islands artifactThis extremely fine and rare stilt step (tapuva’e) from the Marquesas Islands, measuring 14 3/4 inches high, is exquisitely carved from one piece of wood and estimated at $30,000 to $50,000.

Adding excitement to the auction is an extremely fine and rare stilt step, or tapuva’e, of the Marquesas Islands (estimate $30,000-$50,000). The stilt step, acquired by its consignor in 1969 in the United Kingdom, was created for use in stilt games that were a popular art from in the Marquesas Islands and in Polynesia.

Activities varied from men balancing on a stilt and using another stilt to knock down an opponent’s stilt; acrobatics on stilts and entertaining, singing or dancing on stilts, among others. This particular stilt step was exquisitely carved from one piece of wood, likely from the mi’o tree, during the latter half of the 18th century or early 19th century. It depicts a traditional tiki figure with his hands to his stomach.

Of notable provenance in the field of Oceanic Art is a rare Telefomin shield from Papua New Guinea (estimate $8,000-$12,000). The shield was field collected, circa 1960, by Douglas Newton (1920-2001), Metropolitan Museum of Art curator emeritus of the department of the arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas.

It was acquired by the present owner’s family in 1967. It is most likely stone carved in high relief with motifs possibly representing a flying fox (sagaam); it is highlighted on the front with dark-brown, red-orange and white pigments.

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