Buying Polynesian
Polynesian Resource Center

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Hawaiian Fish Hooks – How to tell Authentic from Tourist Trash

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This fish hook pendant made from Mammoth ivory sells for $650 US probably representing the high end of modern Hawaiian fish hooks and it is of course not Hawaiian, except that it is made supposedly in Hawaii which is not at all the same thing. Below is an image of an old Hawaiian fish hook from the Bishop Museum Collection (Princess Ruth Keelikolani Collection) accession number B.03650 made from human bone and it is typical Hawaiian form with an incurved point and lower barb, the original Hawaiian olona line still attached to the top of the shank.

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The two hooks are incomparable in design, quality, authenticity and aesthetically. The real hook is a working fish hook; a simple, elegant, pretty design, superbly crafted, and not that much different from most hooks made before metal was introduced. The reason the modern piece is wrong related simply to its makers failure to grasp Polynesian and specifically Hawaiian aesthetics. At a guess I would say it is influenced by modern Maori hook designs from New Zealand and bad modern tattoo designs. I am afraid it is typical of the quality being churned out in Hawaii, but better than so called Hawaiian hooks mostly made in Asia retailing for under $30. Is it worth $650? Well firstly that price is retail and not what the artist got paid for making it. However, the retailer must make a profit to survive and if the artist got half and we subtract from that the cost of the Mammoth ivory and equipment etc, then he or she was not over paid for their time. But for $650 I would want to see more authenticity in the design and certainly not metal used for suspension.

If we try a different price point say $200 US or under, below is a 'Hawaiian hook' made from elephant ivory.

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Polynesian Resource Center

To the novice this hook bears a brief relationship to a Hawaiian fish hook but is a clunky, flat and crude object of zero merit and a waste of good material. Below is an old hook made of bone and it is rounded, three dimensional and the terminal head is both fine and anthropomorphic.
The briefest glance can see the different in the quality and proportion, the old hook being helped considerably by having a beautiful patina. In both these examples the modern carver has failed to understand how instinctively fine Polynesian hooks and carvings in general are. The simple experience of taking their hook to the Bishop Museum and comparing theirs with an original would have alerted the carver to the serious flaws in their design. Hawaiian carvers have this advantage over carvers in the Australs or the Cooks in having a fabulous collection on their doorstep to physically compare their work with real original carvings. That they are still so far from the quality and fineness of the originals is distressing.

The question is can the visitor to Hawaii find an authentic fish hook true to Hawaiian Aesthetics? The answer is yes and no which seems unhelpful but if the reader bears with me I will attempt to explain. There are carvers capable of producing fine quality Hawaiian fish hooks if we looked at just their carving skills but the flaw is in their grasp of aesthetics. Some carvers show a distinct grasp and understanding of the volume and three dimensionality of a traditional Hawaiian hook, but will still make fundamental faults in the design, the classic one being to bring the hook point to close to the shank, which they do because somehow they consider this look more pleasing, forgetting that this is a functional object and that closing of the distance between point and shank makes the hook incapable of hooking a fish. Now some would say that does not matter as its function is as a pendant. However, this displays the ignorance of the beauty in the juxtaposition of function and form that lies at the heart of Tribal Art. There are pendants in Maori Art that were originally based on a fish hook design that over centuries morphed to the point where the design bears only a shadow of resemblance to its original. But this did not happen in Hawaii and hence much of the poor design in modern Hawaiian fish hook pendants is the creeping in of modern Maori design.

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It is hard to express just how unique Hawaiian fish hooks were or just how beautiful they are to someone not attuned to Polynesian Aesthetics. If we look at the below example again from the Bishop Museum, accession B.06699 this design is so subtle and so deceptively simple that it is entirely understandable that it takes time and intense effort to grasp just how beautifully designed this hook is. However, I am reminded of an old book I once read on collecting English Silver were the writer advice the new collector to go to an old Bond Street silver dealer and ask them to sell him a fine old Queen Anne teaspoon in absolutely original condition. This old spoon the writer said should then be carried in one's pocket and examined and handled regularly till the patina of a real piece of old English Silver became second nature to the novice. The Hawaiian fish hook equivalent of this wonderful piece of advice is to buy a perfect example of an old Hawaiian hook and wear it. Very quickly the owner will find that they could never be fooled into buying a shoddy piece of tourist trash, and that they are no longer a novice but someone who understands Hawaiian Art like the Ancient Hawaiians understood it, through familiarity. The question is where to buy such a paragon of Hawaiian aesthetic virtue, the answer to which will be found here very soon.

 

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