Lot 189
  • 189

A Magnificent and extremely rare Fijian-Tongan Composite Breastplate, Republic of the Fiji Islands

250,000 - 350,000 USD
bidding is closed


civavonovono, made of sperm whale (physeter catodon) tooth and black lip pearl oyster (pinctada margaritiferaI.


Robert Hales, London, 1970s
Lance and Roberta Entwistle, London, acquired from the above
Morton and Estelle Sosland, Kansas City, acquired from the above


Anthony Meyer, Oceanic Art, Cologne, 1995, vol. I, p. 464, fig. 528

Catalogue Note

Breastplates made of mother of pearl with segments of sperm whale tooth attached, called civanovono, were an important royal adornment worn by Fijian chiefs. According to Clunie (1986: 163), they "were suspended from the neck by a pair of strings fastened to the ivory or pearl-shell, and tied at the nape of the wearer's neck. A cord which ran across the back of the breastplate was fastened to these strings, its ends being passed round the wearer's torso to be tied behind his back, so that the breastplate did not swing and bounce against the chest during dancing or combat [...]."

The immense symbolic importance of the breastplates is illustrated by the provenance of another example in the collection of the Fiji Museum at Suva (see Clunie 1986: 165, cat. 123), which was "presented to [chief] Komai Navunibua [...] by [chief] Cakobau in return for his life following his defeat in one of the Nasorovakawalu wars, apparently in the early 1850s" (ibid., text to cat. 123).

For five related breastplates with geometric design, all in the collection of the Fiji Museum, Suva, see Clunie (1986: 74-78, figs. 119-123); for a sixth in the Auckland Museum, previously Oldman Collection, see Brake (1980: 113, cat. 68); for a seventh, with copper rivets and previously in the Oldman Collection, see Cartmail (1997: backcover and p. 103, fig. 58); for an eight in the Field Museum of Natural History, Chicago, previously in the Fuller Collection, see Force (1971: 167).


Some years ago I was fortunate enough to examine in detail the civavonovono and related pectoral ornaments in the Fiji Museum's collection at Suva. See Clunie (1986: 74-78, figs. 119-123) for examples. Although these artifacts differ in size and finesse, their basic construction is similar: they are composite structures in which the separate elements are held together by concealed fibre lashings or, as in the present example, by rivets. Any spaces remaining between the plates are usually filled with resin from the dakua tree (agathis vitiensis).

The technique employed is essentially the same as that used by nineteenth century Tongan (or Samoan) canoe-builders who worked for Fijian chiefs. The technique can be seen also in the fine Tongan trolling fish-hooks (bayaloyalo), made of whalebone, pearlshell and turtleshell.

The raw materials used for the pectorals are significant--plates derived from Sperm Whale (physeter catodon) teeth and pieces of Black-lipped Pearl oyster (pinctada margaritifera) shell. Both were favorite materials for body ornaments in several Pacific island groups but here the two are brilliantly combined in a single artifact, the contrasting colour and patina having a powerful visual impact. Given their rarity, beauty and fine workmanship it is not surprising that these civavonovono  have always been the ne plus ultra for any collector of  "tribal" jewellery.

Various attempts have been made to construct a chronology for these breastplates but collection data are so meagre that such attempts must be largely speculative. The presence of metal rivets, for example, may not necessarily indicate a later object. We know that the trader William Lockerby, for example, was active in Fiji as early as 1808-1809 (Im Thurn and Wharton, 1925) and that copper and lead from such sources would have been available to at least some craftsmen from early times.

We can say with confidence that these rare ornaments were made in the early to middle decades of the nineteenth century. Whereas single whaletooth ornaments (tabua) were employed at various social levels, the civavonovono were reserved for the highest strata of the Fijian hierarchy where they played an important role in ever-changing alliances between the various chiefdoms. Later in the nineteenth century many were given or traded to European officials, missionaries and visitors such as Baron Anatole von Hügel (Roth and Hooper, 1990).  It can not be said that all these Europeans were passive recipients of these treasures. In the case of von Hügel we have the impression of a half-starved and penniless figure tramping through the mountains of Viti Levu in pursuit of native artifacts. In his single-minded search he is said to have even traded the buttons from his tattered clothing.

In its visual impact, although not in the details of its construction, the present fine example may be compared with the best known of all civavonovono, the Tanoa/Gordon breastplate. This appears, worn by Tanoa, "King of Ambau", in the well known engraving featured in Wilkes' Narrative (Wilkes, 1845).  From Tanoa it passed to his son, the great Cakobau, and then, as Clunie (1983) has shown, to  Governor Sir Arthur Gordon, representing the British monarch.

Civavonovono breastplates appear very rarely at auction and the appearance of this splendid example is a notable event.  This is a magnificent work of art and also a tangible reminder of Polynesian craftsmanship at its very finest.

Julian Harding
London, March 2009
© Julian Harding