Polynesian Resource Center

Dedicated to the preservation and promotion of Polynesian Art and Culture

Polynesia Art at Auction – Rosenthal Moai Kava Kava - Easter Island

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CAt Sotheby's New York Salesroom on the 14 November 2008 the last great Easter Island Moai Kava Kava figure sold for $614,500 USD (Hammer Price with Buyer's Premium) against an estimate of 250,000 — 350,000 USD. This was quite literally the last bus, as the chance of another figure of this quality appearing for sale is virtually zero. This figure is Oldman Collection quality and I having handled three of the Oldman Collection Moai Kava Kava I can only say this figure is as good as these figures get. I read an interesting claim recently that it was the tool grade obsidian found on Easter Isaland that allowed Rapanui carvers to produce figures of this quality. This is an interesting claim and may well be true, except it fails to give just credit to the genius of these carvers. As plastic sculpture in the meaning of being deeply three dimensional these figures are the Tribal Art versions of sculpture in the class of Michelangelo's David, except they are an art form more original in that it is as if they sprung from the earth without predecessors. Michelangelo's David is a homo-erotic version of 500BC Greek predecessors, but these Moai Kava Kava are like the three dimensional form of a nightmare without precedent. It is now thought that they represent the cavaders of ancestors during second burials, in other words decicated and rotting corpses, which certainly is an explaination that matches their appearance and it is in keeping with known Polynesia burial rites, for in Polynesia to dig up one's father and make a fish hook pendant from his femur was perfectly in keeping with their customs as ancestor worshippers. My point is that we need to step back and look at these objects with critical sense for quality of carving and originality, and when we do the $614,500 USD the buyer paid looks awfully cheap.

This is the power of Tribal Art and buyers are only now beginning to pay prices more in keeping with the quality of the work. It never ceases to amaze me the prices paid for the work of some of the third rate hacks who held an undeserving position in the world of 20th Century Art, or for that matter the abject poverty of concept and execution in Contemporary Art. A month ago I visited MONA; the Museum of Old and New in Hobart which has on display Contemporary work pretty much what you would expect to find in any Western Art Gallery on a Sunday afternoon. Of affectation, undergraduate pretentiousness and earnest efforts to shock there was no lack, but neither wit, wisdom, power and beauty were on display. There is a sort of tired, poverty of intellect that hangs about this stuff like the pong of catshit on one's shoe. But this is rarely the case of good Tribal Art which rather like this Moai Kava Kava tends to suffer and excess of power and originality.

Of course the carvers of Easter Island were not striving for endless originality, but rather conservatively were merely seeking to produce a quality version of an ancestoral carving of their type. But behind this carving stands belief, belief in the power of the Gods and belief that their ancestors continued to watch over them. How can this belief be compared to the total absense of not just belief by contemporary artists, but an absence of philosophy, of purpose beyond a desire for self aggrandisement set in a landscape of moral and cultural poverty. Anyone who has had the misfortune to spend any time with Contemporary artists or in the Contemporary Art circles will know what I mean. These people are infected by the modern disease of self entitlement, and it can be truly said that their only belief is an over abundance of self belief.

For those wishing to join the World of Art Collectors, I would recommend that they keep their money in the bank till they have learnt to look very critically at the Art Market. In fact I recommend they read up on Tribal Art, backed up by time spent in the Tribal Art archives of Sotheby's, Bonhams and the likes of the Munich auction house Zemanek-Münster. You will note Christie's is absent from my recommendation, because Christe's remove all images off their site after a sale so are zero use to the would be Art Collector. Christies do this for commecial reasons presumably they have some nasty deal with an images library, but Auction Houses so short sighted as to not help potential collectors gain experience and knowledge through access to well illustrated archives deserve nothing but contempt. The British and Metropolitian Museums Museums, in fact many good museums have excellent high quality images on their websites, though most are guilty of not supplying good background literature to regional Tribal Art Styles. Finding the best writer on the subject is often the key, for a good Art Historian is an invaluable guide to a budding collector, and a great Art Historian's works are often a collector's bibles. On this subject this series on Polynesia Art at Auction is specifically designed to get would be collectors seeing beyond the blurb of an auction catalogue. That is not to say that auction catalogues are not a valuable source of knowledge it is just that they need to be read with circumspection. I have included the full catalogue entry for Rosenthal Moai Kava Kava figure below, but first I will point out a few aspects of the figure the cataloger missed.

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The first thing my eye goes to in this detail image is the beautiful spiral at the top of the ear. Obviously as a New Zealander used to Maori Art this curvealiniar feature is something I am well used to, but it is something rare in the Art of the rest of Polynesia. The cut itself is pretty flawless which begs the question how was it cut? The suggestion of the use of obsidian as a carver I find very interesting and at some point I intend doing some experimental work to see the posiblities this material offers. This of course means research to find early examples of tools made of obsidian. The general finish on all these top Moai Kava Kava is very high, and I am convinced that they have been subject to large amounts of painstaking abrasion work . The age of them has not been satisfactoryily determined and this view seems to show wear on the face of the head-glyph, which suggests a healthy age despite that fact that their use seems likely to have been ceremonial which would surely be periodic, though how periodic it is hard to know. My feeling is all the good ones are early, though I confess in this I have not the slightest proof. The beautiful spiral on the ear is something that deserves further research; is its appearance just a happy coinsidence or is this perhaps an old motif shared by Easter Island and the New Zealand Maori that died elsewhere in the Pacific. Either way it seems we will need to revisit this figure in the future to see if some serious questions can be answered.

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Magnificent rapa nui male figure, Easter Island
Moai kavakava, the male figure standing on bent legs with one leg stepping forward, the phallus of conical shape, the upper body arched forward with an emaciated chest, the head pitched forward with expressionistic, gaunt features and eyes inset with obsidian and bird (aves) bone, on the head the representation of a zoo-anthropomorphic creature with a human unbearded head, hands with five fingers, a tail, and striation on the back; exceptionally fine reddish brown partially lustrous patina with partial encrustation and orange-red pigment on the teeth.

height 16 1/2 in. 41.8 cm
Christie's, London, June 29, 1983, lot 71
Acquired at the above auction
Brooklyn Museum, Brooklyn, New York, A Family Album: Brooklyn Collects, March 2 - July 1, 2001
Geraldine Norman, "£10 gamble yields £100,440," The Times, London, June 30, 1983, p. 2 (illustrated)
Catalogue Note

Wooden figures from Easter Island (one of the most remote islands in Polynesia, some 2000 miles from the nearest landmass) representing emaciated, sometimes almost skeletal, men locally called moai kavakava are named after moai for the monumental monolithic human figures found on Easter Island and the word kavakava meaning "ribs". Little is known about their cultural context. According to Forment, in her important exhibition catalog (in MRAH 1990: 116), certain akuaku (spirits) have the appearance of moai kavakava and show themselves to peoples at night. The cultural hero Tuu-ko-ihu is reported to have once encountered a certain number of akuaku during an excursion and created the first moai kavakava figures after their image.

Although the precise function of moai kavakava is still the subject of research, most moai kavakava show evidence of suspension. However, the presence or absence of a suspension hole at the nape of the neck is not an indication of the relative age of moai kavakava. The Rosenthal Figure has no pierced suspension loop but shows clear evidence of wear below the lower jaw, presumably caused by a fiber thread once running around its neck for suspension. See Chauvet (1935: pl. XLIV, figs. 116-121 and 123, 126-130) for numerous figures with slight stylistic variations and all lacking a suspension hole.

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The anthropo-zoomorphic head-glyph on the Rosenthal Figure, representing a human creature with a long beard following the jaw line and a lizard-like tail, is typical (cf. Heyerdahl 1975: 183, fig. 34) and might stand in iconographic context with the corpus of moai tangata moko, the wooden representations of lizard men (cf. Forment in MRAH 1990: 116 and cat. 21-24).

The Rosenthal Figure shows traces of orange pigment in the mouth, a feature rarely seen (or preserved) in other known moai kavakava figures. Cf. one figure previously in the collections of the English sculptor Sir Jacob Epstein and Charles Ratton, said to have been collected in 1774 on Captain Cook's second voyage (MRAH 1990: 182, cat. 4) and a second figure also previously in the Epstein and subsequently the Carlo Monzino Collection (Sotheby's, Paris, September 30, 2002, lot 31).

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The overall posture of moai kavakava follows quite rigidly a set canon, usually displaying bent legs, a forward arching torso with arms held to the sides, and a head with progenic open mouth bent forward. Working within this canon, the unknown artist of the Rosenthal Figure, however, has elongated the limbs and the torso in order to create an extreme curvature of the body. The slenderness of the figure is further reinforced by the narrow face with its relatively low cheekbones and forcefully focusing eyes. The slight tilt of the head to the figure's right side gives this moai kavakava an unusually powerful, almost hypnotic expression. For another figure with similar facial features cf. the moai kavakava previously in the collections of the French surrealist André Breton and the publisher René Gaffé (Cahiers d'Art, Quatrième Année, Paris, 1929, fig. 171).

The great genius of the Rosenthal Figure's creator, however, lies in the departure from the static posture of all other known moai kavakava with parallel feet and manifests itself in the forward stepping of the right foot. This posture allows the artist to set the Rosenthal figure in motion, while at the same time the head remains static. This fusion of contradicting movements creates a haunting image of sublime power, making the Rosenthal moai kavakava one of the great examples of its kind.

And there the reader has it, the above is as good as a catalogue entry gets, educated and informative with minimum flannel. We might also add this moai kava kava has a manevolent expression to the face that is different that any other I have seen and one wonders if carvers attempted to get personality into the face as all moai kava kava have different expressions. There is new research that claims the wood these moai kava kava was made from dates back to the 13th century this is interesting because toromiro is of the same genus as New Zealanf kowhai which ir not especially long lived so the date these images were carved could be 13/14th century. Attenborough suggests they were kept in the stone cult houses at Orongo, which would explain their condition, however the reader can see just why Easter Island continues to be a fasinating island; the strange jewel in the crown of Polynesian Art History.

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