African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art


Austral Necklace, Austral Islands
Contains Sperm Whale (physeter macrocephalus) tooth and bone, human (homo sapian) hair and Coconut (cocos nucidera) fibers.
sperm whale ivory and bone, coconut fibers
Length (without sennit binding at ends): 22 in (57.2 cm)
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Saul Davis, Buffalo, presumably acquired from Colonel Wood's Museum following the Great Chicago Fire of October 9, 1871, or at public auction from Thomas and Sidney Barnett on May 1, 1878
Edward Barron, by descent from the above
Edward Noonan, acquired from the above
Dr. Carlton Frank, Los Angeles, acquired from the above in 1924
Jacob Sherman, acquired from the above in 1942 and by descent through the family
William Jamieson, Toronto, acquired from the above in 1999
Sotheby's New York, May 19, 2000, lot 171
Acquired by the present owner at the above auction


The Niagara Falls Museum, Niagara Falls, ca. 1880-1999


Rita Reif, "From Polynesia, Artwork Fit For Warriors: Two 19th-century rarities of Polynesian art, a brilliantly colored Hawaiian cape and a whalebone necklace, emerge from the obscurity of a defunct Canadian museum," The New York Times, June 11, 2000, Art/Architecture, AR 36


The offered lot is documented as having been on public view at The Niagara Falls Museum since the late 1870s or early 1880s (Jon Jouppien, JK Jouppien Heritage Resource Consultant Inc., Buffalo, personal communication, March 2010). The museum displayed a "gallery of wax figures," consisting of nine wooden mannequins with wax heads, depicting the likes of typical world characters such as a Scotsman, a Native American woman, and a man in Middle-Eastern outfit. The Austral necklace was mounted together with a Hawaiian feather cape (see lot 84) on a mannequin depicting a Hawaiian King.

The owner of The Niagara Falls Museum at the time was Buffalo native Saul Davis. Davis had acquired the museum in its entirety at public auction on May 1, 1878 following the bankruptcies of the museum's founder Thomas Barnett (1799-1890) and his son Sidney (1835-1925). For a brief account of the history of The Niagara Falls Museum see Sotheby's New York, May 19, 2000, p. 31. It is possible that the group of nine mannequins was already part of The Niagara Falls Museum at the time when it was owned by the Barnetts. However, according to Jon Jouppien (see above) it is more likely that Davis bought the mannequins from Colonel Wood's Museum in Chicago after the museum's building was destroyed in the Great Chicago Fire of October 9, 1871. When the necklace and feather cape were re-discovered in 1999 they were covered in suds containing traces of ashes, suggesting that both items once were exposed to smoke from a great fire.

The Austral Islands Necklace previously in the Collection of the Niagara Falls Museum

Austral Islands necklaces of this type are among the rarest and most sought after of all Polynesian artifacts. No more than twenty are known to exist and among these the present example is unique in having so many ivory and bone elements.

The iconic status of these ornaments is enhanced by a certain mystery which has surrounded their place of origin. In establishing this it will be helpful to begin with the "testicle" pendants which are known in a variety of sizes and materials (ivory, bone, wood).  In the official account of Captain Cook's last voyage we find a description of the natives of Atiu, one of the southern Cook Islands: "Some, who were of a superior class, and also the Chiefs, had two little balls, with a common base, made from the bone of some animal, which hung round the neck, with a great many folds of small cord" (Cook, 1784).

William Wyatt Gill of the London Missionary Society noted that such objects were worn as ear ornaments by the chiefs of Mangaia, the southernmost of the Cook Islands (Gill,1894).

Later, E.L.Gruning, who lived in the Cook Islands from 1905 to 1914, carried out an exploration of Atiu during which he had himself lowered into a cave of unknown depth at the end of a makeshift liana rope.  His courage was rewarded by the discovery of human skeletons and two "phallic ornaments", one suspended from braided human hair, in the manner of a Hawaiian lei niho palaoa. He notes that these ornaments "are reputed to have been worn only by champion warriors of the island, who had the right of possessing any woman, married or single, while wearing one" (Gruning, 1937). The term "phallic", used by several authors to describe these pendants, is of course a mistake. They may well represent testicles but certainly not a phallus.

It is thus certain that individual testicle pendants were worn as chiefly ornaments in at least two of the Cook Islands in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Very possibly they were similarly used in the neighbouring Austral Islands since there was canoe contact,  both  deliberate and accidental, between the island groups.

If we now turn to the composite necklaces themselves we find the evidence of origin much less clear, no doubt because early records for the Austral Islands are extremely sparse. In his monumental Album (1890) Edge-Partington published a fine example, attributing it to Mangaia (plate17, no.2). Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck, 1944) gave a detailed account based on the ten necklaces known to him and held in various institutions: British Museum (2), Cambridge University Museum, England (2), Royal Scottish Museum, Edinburgh (1), Boulogne Museum (1), Peabody Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts (1) and the Oldman Collection (3). He also attributes these necklaces to Mangaia, but suggests a close connection with Rurutu in the Austral group.  Significantly, Buck states that the pig was unknown in Mangaia but was present in Rurutu (ibid.).

More recently Roger Duff pointed firmly to the Australs as the origin for these necklaces on the basis of old missionary attributions for three examples not known to Buck. Two, now in the Canterbury Museum, New Zealand, were previously in the Wisbech Museum, England, where they were described as "Necklaces from Rurutu, Austral Islands. Composed of the fibres of cocoanut, human hair and bones; worn as a memorial of friendship. Rev. Wm. Ellis 26.8.1841". Duff notes that a third necklace, in the Saffron Walden Museum, England, is also attributed to the Australs and specifically to the island of Tupua'i (Duff, 1969).

A persuasive argument in favour of the Austral Islands derives from comparative morphology. The famous figure of A'a in the British Museum (Harding, 1994) is certainly from the Australs - it was given up to John Williams of the London Missionary Society in 1821 by a party of Rurutu islanders. The small figures ("demigods") carved on this sculpture closely resemble those on a whalebone bowl of typical Australs form (Oldman collection no. 476, now in the Auckland Museum). This bowl has a handle in the form of two pig figures identical in style to the one on the present necklace.

Thus, on the available evidence, we can safely attribute these beautiful necklaces to the Austral Islands, those specks of land to the south of Tahiti which produced some of the finest art of the Pacific.  The Australs culture, briefly glimpsed by Captain Cook in 1769 and  again in 1777, was more or less intact when Fletcher Christian and the other Bounty mutineers arrived there in 1787. Missionary influence and introduced diseases effectively destroyed the old way of life and today this is merely a remote corner of French Polynesia with a total population of 6500 and virtually no trace of the original culture.  The survival of a few Australs masterpieces, such as the necklace offered here, is of the greatest importance. These objects are silent witnesses to a tradition of superb craftsmanship which has disappeared for ever.

The  present necklace may be compared with three examples in the Oldman collection (illustrated in Oldman, 1943, plate 21, nos. 477, 478, 479) and with three in the Hooper collection (illustrated in Phelps, 1976, plate 83, nos. 654, 655, 656). Understandably, very few Australs necklaces have ever appeared at auction. One of the Hooper examples (no.654) was sold at Christie's, London, June 17, 1980.  After many years in the De Menil collection this reappeared at Sotheby's, New York, auction on November 22, 1998. Another Hooper necklace (no. 656, the Edge-Partington example previously mentioned) was sold by Christie's, London, July 3, 1990.

While these comparisons are useful the necklace offered here is quite simply in a class of its own, its sixteen elements contrasting with the seven, eight or nine in the examples given above. More than 150 years ago it was no doubt the prized possession of an important Australs  ari'i (chief). It is difficult to imagine that any finer example will ever appear on the market.

Julian Harding
London, February 2010


Cook, Capt. J, 1784:  A Voyage to the Pacific Ocean.....1776-1780.
Duff, R.(ed.),  1969:  No Sort of Iron : Culture of Cook's Polynesians.
Edge-Partington, J., 1890 : An Album of the Weapons, Tools, Ornaments....of the Natives of the Pacific Islands. First Series.
Gill, W. W., 1894 : From Darkness to Light in Polynesia.
Gruning, E.L., 1937: Notes on Burial Caves in the Cook Group. In Ethnologia Cranmorensis, no.1.
Harding, J., 1994: A Polynesian God and the Missionaries.  The World of Tribal Arts I: 4.
Oldman, W.O., 1943: The Oldman Collection of Polynesian Artifacts.
Phelps, S., 1976:  Art and Artefacts....The James Hooper Collection.
Te Rangi Hiroa (Peter Buck), 1944 :  Arts and Crafts of the Cook Islands.

African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art