Book cover: plate
351, a Society Islands bark cloth poncho, 18th c.
Congratulations on completing your new hardcover book. It was surely
a massive and ambitious project. What were some of the challenges and
triumphs in producing it?
their were many challenges on this project that basically spread
over many years. Photographing was extremely difficult as it took a
host of very special photographers that could actually capture the
objects in all their beauty, but after hundreds of hours of
photography with the bulk of the material photographed in 4x5 format
it became a reality. It did stretch our patience though and it took my
input on every piece to bring my insight into the photos that were
the result of tireless efforts on all the parties concerned. Obviously since we live with the pieces we have a greater
understanding of what brings the objects to life so to speak and
sought to put this input into the photographers hand.
Mark, Carolyn and
Kuhane Blackburn off Fa Fa Island, Tonga 1998
importantly the tireless effort of Dr. Adrienne Kaeppler can never
be repaid by our family as it was her hard work and the objects and
cultures themselves that brought the book to fruition- having her
insight and friendship was the greatest joy of the project! Also we
did not want it to be a "vanity book" but wanted it to tell the
story of the people and places of Polynesia which it does I am happy
to say. I think the introduction of the "flat art" also helps in
telling the story of these unique islands. Many people have no idea
that we have always been interested in paintings, exploration art,
and photography as well as ephemeral material which we have added to
the book. In this area we have chosen only a few selected works as we
have a large collection of this type of material and plan on doing
several other books in the future incorporating these items. As a
result of all of this we must say we are quite happy with the ending
There are hundreds of pieces illustrated
(804) in there but this is not even all of your collection. What percentage
of your collection did you decide to publish?
have to say we put a moratorium on "adding objects" about three
years ago. So many Polynesian objects, some very important, have not
been published as if we hadn't the book would never have been
finished as we are still actively collecting. In objects I would
have to say 85 percent are published but in flat works of art only a
very small percentage are included in the book as we have a large
collection of paintings and drawings numbering well over 150 in
number. In the ephemera and historical artifact range it also would
be very small as we have hundreds of things from Captain Cooks
Walking stick, Maori War Medals, Missionary letters and Journals,
Queen Pomares dresses, Bounty objects, etc etc. Photography will be
another area which we will discuss further and then we have side
collections such as vintage Polynesian postcards that now number
40,000 or more and are currently the subject of one of Steven Hooper's
students PHD thesis. Keep in mind these date to pre-1930 with the
bulk 1900-1920 which was the golden age of postcards and in reality
are historical artifacts capturing a certain period of time in
plate 429, Maori post
figure Poutokomanawa, early 19th c.
Dr. Adrienne Kaeppler the Polynesian
scholar, author and curator of Oceanic ethnology at the Smithsonian
wrote the text. Tell me about your special relationship with her?
always been honored to call Dr. Adrienne Kaeppler one of our closest
friends. She has truly been a inspiration to us but her friendship
has always been treasured by the entire family. We have had the
pleasure of not only working on this "book project" with her but
many other things such as setting up the Tongan National Museum in
1998 in honor of the Kings 80th birthday where our Tongan collection
was put on display. This special occasion was one of our highlights in
our "Polynesian Journey" and was special in many ways for our entire
family including our son Kuhane who was very young at the
time. Being the leading scholar in her field and to have a close
personal insight into her knowledge has also been especially
rewarding. We have been involved with her on many other projects as
well such as the current Captain Cook Show that opened in Bonn a
year ago September and is now on view in Bern. Also we are greatly
looking forward to her latest project that is due out very shortly
on the Leverian Museum where we have lent a couple of items for the
Plate 455: Maori
Hei Tiki greenstone amulet, 18th c.
You’re the most passionate collector I
know on all subjects Polynesian. What did you hope to achieve with
sharing and publishing your collection?
We have always
wished to share our deep love and affection for all things Polynesian. Considering that very few people understand where the islands of
Polynesia lie let alone know anything about the people, we have always
felt that it was our mission to payback and be a type of ambassador for
these amazing cultures. After all, our greatest gift from Polynesia is
our son Kuhane who is Tahitian and adopted by my wife and myself at
three days old. Its been an amazing journey and had we not been
interested in acquiring objects etc. we would have missed out on adopting
our son but that is another story in itself.
Plate 512: Maori
ritual fishhook "Matau"18th c.
How long did
it take you to accumulate all these treasures? Will the collection ever
be complete and do you have any dream pieces?
my first piece in Germany in the early 70's but really didn't become
consumed by the collector's bug until the early 80's. The
collection will never be complete as I expect it to be a life long
process so to speak. I guess my dream piece would be a
monumental piece of Mangarevan sculpture followed by the Hawaiian
sculpture in the Bishop Museum known as the "poison god" which is
fragmentary in nature - it's the essence of Polynesian sculpture and
Marquesas Fan "Tahi", early 19th c.
The book is a wonderful art experience to
look through. I’m struck by how difficult, if not impossible, it would
be today to obtain pieces like your Marquesas Island Trophy skull and
trumpet, Maori post figure, pieces collected by Capitan Cook etc. How
was this possible when this kind of quality is so rare today?
Well I was
quite fortunate to be around during a time when material of this quality
was somewhat available and also I pursued objects and went to great
lengths to establish my name out their in the public domain. What makes
our collection I believe quite unique is that the majority of pieces
came from non-auction sources such as missionary descendants, whalers,
explorers etc.-- it was like being a detective in those early days
tracking these types of sources down. Also I always believed in true
dealers as a great source of material. I was fortunate to know the
greatest of all dealers in Polynesian art and that was the legendary
John Hewett and of course people such as Mert Simpson who at the time
was a true pioneer in many ways. Also I was the first to run ads in
Maine Antique Digest, Antique Trader, Apollo Magazine, and Antique Trade
Gazette which really paid off early on.
I must say that I miss those old
days in London at 11 Cadogan Gardens where dealers and runners would
bring us objects to look at; those were truly the glory days of
collecting! I was also quite fortunate to know great academic scholars
such as the late Terence Barrow, Bengt Danielsson, Maui Pomare and
others who opened doors for us so to speak. We knew all these people on
a very intimate basis and were fortunate to spend considerable time with
these academics and historic figures. I wish I could have just down
loaded their experiences and knowledge before they passed away!
Marquesas "U'u" club, early 19th c.
You’ve described those times as magical
when you were chasing art at the London auctions. Was the mid 70’s and
early 1980’s the “golden age” for buying Polynesian Art at auction?
70's and 80's were magical times on all fronts as their was more
material around and less sensationalism. Also there were just a handful
of collectors at that time and very little understanding on the rarity
and importance of certain objects. Today its a totally different story
with many people chasing far less material and as Dr. Kaeppler says in
the book "Polynesian material today is looked at as the Rolls Royce of
Plate 209: Futuna
Island decorated kava bowl, mid-19th c.
you think there is still a cache of Polynesian material to be found or
are all of the great pieces already known?
possible but in this information age I highly doubt it with the likes of
the "Antique Road Show" and other things that sensationalize values. Look,
this material was scarce from the very beginning and very few people
really understand it. Case in point is the Austral Islands where the
entire population dwindled to less than 20 people by 1830, yet people
discard Austral island paddles as nothing when in reality they to are
rare as the population of the islands basically disappeared by 1830. Yes
in most cases they are early trade items but do you think there are many
new previously unknown Austral paddles going to appear on the market-- I
highly doubt it. So you can imagine the chances of a major rarity
appearing such as a previously unknown piece of Hawaiian sculpture. Its
not going to happen and if it does it will be by only freak
circumstance! Also too many people and auction houses are competing for
this material today!
Marquesas trumpets "Pu" 19th c. and a drum "Pahu" 18th-early 19th
For those who don’t know, how did you
become so completely spellbound with Polynesia, its people, culture and
art? Is your obsession a curse or a blessing?
I fell in love
with the islands after my first trip to Tahiti in 1971 which is still my
favorite place in the world. Recently a close friend of mine who
traveled with us to Tahiti for the first time after the Rarotonga
Pacific Arts Conference in August described Tahiti as "hallucegenic" and
its my feeling exactly, its why so many writers and explorers fell
under the influence of the islands of Polynesia. Its spellbinding on
all visual and metaphysical levels and the masterworks of art from
these islands capture the same feelings in me. Its been the greatest
blessing of my life for without the love for Polynesia I would have not
ended up in Hawaii and thus meeting my wife of 31 years Carolyn or our
greatest Polynesian treasure our son Kuhane.
299-301: Marquesas basalt tiki figures "Ke'a", 18th c.
Can you recall an interesting story
involving great effort to acquire a piece?
I must admit I
always enjoyed and still do the thrill of the hunt so to speak
especially in the early days. I have so many interesting stories about
how and when I acquired pieces that I plan on writing a book someday on
that subject alone. When it came to many of the more important pieces in
the collection I must say it took a lot of perseverance and sleuthing.
Quite honestly I would travel fast and furious anywhere in the world
on a moments notice to pursue an object of great interest or importance. One of my greatest sources was to hunt down many of the original
descendants of missionaries, explorers, and founding members of the
Polynesian Society. I also tracked down many early purchasers of objects
that came up early at auction as their names were published in the
prices realized sheets.
(left) plate 169:
probably the finest Tongan Club known, "Akau tau" 18th c.,
collected on Captain Cooks third voyage. (Right) plate 544: this
unassuming looking object is actually an exceedingly rare "Tabooing
Wand" used by priests or "Kahuna " to put objects, people and
places under taboo! It is so far the only known surviving object
of its type.
Am I correct in saying that your two
successful businesses, Wholesalerug.com in Lancaster Pennsylvania and
Mauna Kea Galleries in Honolulu largely exist to finance your
acquisitions of Polynesian Art?
Since I was
raised in a family of very modest means the only way to collect and
acquire objects was by hard work. Many people know that I made quite a
bit of money before the age of 21 when I was a young coin dealer and
gold and silver broker but that fortune was mostly lost. It was truly
the handmade oriental rug business that allowed us to pursue collecting
in a major way. It was making Oriental Rugs available for the masses
that was the key to our success. We decided there was enough of
playing games in this business and we still do sell large quantities of
fine handmade rugs at the guaranteed lowest price in the USA. I treat
the rugs as a commodity just like my early background as a metals dealer
and look at moving quantities of a fine handmade product at a very low
price with a small markup which was unheard of at the time. Also all
rugs are priced and non-negotiable which is unheard of even today. We
did not size the consumer up when they entered the showroom and didn't
discount further as the person got closer to the front door. Our son Kuhane has expressed an interest in this business so we have decided to
keep it as an ongoing family enterprise.
The gallery on the other hand
came out of just a natural love for things Polynesian. Its a ongoing
concern but our main interest besides Hawaiiana and surf stuff is
important Hawaiian paintings where I have to say we were the main player
in the field during the late 90's until say mid 2006. This was a market
fueled by wealthy second home buyers who were building huge homes in the
islands and wanted to decorate so to speak with period island art.
Fijian throwing clubs Ula drisia (right) "I ula Kobo" 18th-early 19th c.
Few people know this but you have one of
the largest collections of Pre-1900 Polynesian photographs. Tell me
more about that.
have I believe the largest collection of Polynesian photography in
private hands numbering well in excess of 10,000 images pre-1900. We
have been actively pursuing this field for 30 years when no one else
paid attention to it and in fact were mocked by many well known
tribal figures for buying the material. Our plan is to do a series
of books over the next few years and put it all on a digital date
base. We have always made this material available to scholars and
academics and countless images have been used in various
publications. We are still actively collecting in this area but like
everything its getting much harder to locate.
Photo: Cook Islands (Raratonga)
Some have criticized you for being overly
competitive when pursuing an object you want. Do you think that is
as a dealer in rare coins most likely helped form my competitiveness. I
was successful in that business as I would go to great ends with
constant travel to acquire rare coins. I looked at the world as the
marketplace and not just a regional area and this was all at a very
young age. This combined with spending over thirty years as a rug dealer
also has formed a type of competitiveness I guess. As most people know I
will go to great lengths to acquire and pursue Polynesia objects, so I
guess this is a fair appraisal. Also it was a very competitive world in
the late 80's and 90's so you had to go to great lengths to compete
against mega money people such as Bill Ziff and others. It took a lot of
strategy, planning, hard work and most importantly passion.
1-3 Fijian breastplates "Civavonovono" early 19th c., (right) whale
ivory necklace 18th-19th c.
What dealer, collector or scholar
inspired you the most?
John Hewett and Mert Simpson who both had a type of style, grace and
passion, scholar- Adrienne Kaeppler, and collector- W.O. Oldman.
Hawaiian barkcloth "Kapa moe", early 19th c.
Can you describe the important role
Carolyn plays in your life?
my soul mate and had the patience and understanding to live with a
true collector. She also loves the hunt for objects even today and
most importantly shares the same values and passions with me.
Without her input the collection would not be at the level it is
today. Also she has a tremendous amount of good humor and patience
which helps when living with a collector like myself.
563: Hawaiian feather lei, "Lei pauku", 18th c.
It was clear early on that you had a
unique view on selling artifacts, for instance when you ran full page
ads in Tribal Magazine showing a group of pieces with prices. What is
your philosophy on selling?
I really dislike the
marketplace whether it is oriental rugs, antiques, or tribal art
where the price is determined after the seller sizes up the
potential buyer so to speak. I have been severely criticized in the
rug business and tribal art world for taking the approach that all
items that are for sale should carry a visible price for everyone to
see. For some reason most dealers no matter what the area hate this
approach to business.
Plate 537 & 537:
Easter Island (Rapa Nui) dance paddles "rapa", early 19th c.
You’ve been critical about today’s
selling environment for tribal art. You’ve called it a snake pit, how
do you mean and how have things changed?
First of all
their is very little scholarship today and most dealers just look at the
material as merchandise. Also because its so competitive and the market
is so small compared to other areas of collecting there is a type of
nastiness that I do not see even in the rug business which for the
record is not for the faint of heart. I also think that many dealers
have no idea about the cultures or the people that made these truly
amazing things. Also there is this sort of tribal territorialism that
prevails in the tribal art world where people are constantly bad-mouthing people and objects and calling things fake when they have no
clue what the hell they are talking about. Also the French versus the
American thing is quite odd as well. Its so territorial and crazy in
this world where globalism is the name of the game.
527 & 529: Easter Island (Rapa Nui) "Moai Kavakavas", 19th c.
What are your thoughts on where the
Tribal Art market is now and where it is going?
for quality Polynesian objects will keep the price levels increasing as
more people are interested in the material. I think that prevails for
Melanesia especially island Melanesia as well; but for African and New
Guinea I think it will decrease except in the case of John Freide level
New Guinea which I think will increase as well. But lets face it if you
want a world class Fang or Kota its always available and you may have
several to choose from but that's not true in Polynesia-- who are you
going to call or look up for Hawaiian sculpture or that matter a piece
of Maori sculpture of importance? No one! The material is rare
and the cultures were decimated by contact with the West at a very early
time. Also I truly believe that for a piece of Polynesian or Oceanic
Sculpture that is world-class there is no price. Lets face it, even at
the million dollar level its just sales tax on a not very interesting
modern or impressionist painting. Look at the contemporary world where
ten million dollars is the entry level price on something of importance.
Plate 495: Maori
hand club "Wahaika rakau", 18th c., (right) plate 488: Maori hand club "Kotiate
paraoa", 18th-19th c.
What are your thoughts on the sensitive
political topic of repatriation of cultural material?
First of all
we have the utmost respect for all indigenous cultures. As avid
environmentalists it was these cultures that first understood what the
earth had to offer and its limits. Also we were the first private
collectors, to our knowledge, to lend a collection back to a indigenous
people and that was in 1998 in the Kingdom of Tonga. It should be
noted that if it wasn't for collectors most of the known material that
exists today would not be around especially in areas in the Pacific
where climate and earthquakes etc. are always factors. I think I would
like to sum it up ending by telling a story about a conversation that
I had late one night with the great Maori scholar Maui Pomare at his
sheep ranch above Wellington. I asked him after a lovely meal and a
couple glasses of wine how he viewed us as collectors of his peoples
treasures or "taonga"? He then said that he was confident that these
treasures were being carefully cared for by us and these objects acted
as ambassadors for his people and that has always stuck with me to this
Plate 209: Futuna
Island (upper) waist garmetn "salatasi" early 19th c. (bottom left)
barkcloth "Siapo" from Uvea, late 19th c.
What is the ultimate long-term goal for
We are still
collecting but this has always been on our mind. At the moment we feel
the collection would most likely end up in a major museum but not
necessarily in the U.S. or possibly a foundation. We are also very
involved in environmental issues especially in Hawaii so who knows what
or how this will somehow be part of the whole picture. One thing is for
sure we didn't purchase the material as some type of investment but
solely for the beauty and passion that these objects invoke.
Marquesas Island trophy skull, 18th c.
Is there anything important you would
like people to know about you?
would. We believe in "paying back" so we have committed
ourselves to making the world and environment a better place to live
in. With that all said we are on the front lines of a major
environmental battle in Hawaii which I guess you could say invokes
the true power of one family to stand up against insurmountable odds to leave the world a better place. Stay tuned for that
extends its sincere gratitude and appreciation to Mark Blackburn for offering
his insightful views.
icon to order from the University of Hawaii Press
addition, please see the Apollo Magazine interview of Mark and
Carolyn Blackburn in the October 2007 issue titled: "A
Rolls-Royce Collection of Oceanic Art"