Lot 7
  • 7

Tahitian Squid Bait, French Polynesia

6,000 - 9,000 USD
Log in to view results
bidding is closed


  • fiber, cowrie shell, tiger cowrie shell, turbo shell
  • Length including woven line: 15 in (38.1 cm)
composed of Cowrie (Cypraea moneta), Tiger Cowrie (Cypraea tigris) shells, Lyncina broderipii shells, and a Turbo petholatus shell.


Possibly collected by Lord James Townshend (1785-1842)
Townshend family of Frognal House, Sidcup, England
Harry Geoffrey Beasley, Chislehurst, England, bought on May 10, 1915
Irene Beasley, Chislehurst, by descent from the above
Allan Stone, New York, by 1966


Harry G. Beasley, "Some Polynesian Cuttlefish Baits", The Journal of the Royal Anthropological Institute of Great Britain and Ireland, Vol. 51, January-June, 1921, p. 108, fig. 7


Very good condition overall for an object of this age and rare type. Some minor fraying to fiber elements. One shell element cracked as shown in catalogue photograph. Another element with an irregular hole. Marks, nicks, scratches, abrasions, small cracks, and wear consistent with age and handling. Fine aged patina with dirt residue. With two old handwritten labels attached, the first inscribed in ink: Beasley Coll. / TAHITI / Squid Bait / No. 969 and on the reverse: from the Sidney Coll. (Marquis of Townshend) Frognal Sidcup the second inscribed in ink: TAHITI Bait for squid. called "TOO-TOOFE. The rattling of the shells is said to attract the squid. and on the reverse: THE SMALL SHELL AT END called TURBO PETHOLATUS. and in pencil in a different hand: Bought sale Marquis of Townshend
In response to your inquiry, we are pleased to provide you with a general report of the condition of the property described above. Since we are not professional conservators or restorers, we urge you to consult with a restorer or conservator of your choice who will be better able to provide a detailed, professional report. Prospective buyers should inspect each lot to satisfy themselves as to condition and must understand that any statement made by Sotheby's is merely a subjective qualified opinion.

Catalogue Note

Daily life in pre-colonial Polynesia was intimately linked to spiritual belief and mythology. Composite squid baits formed from shell and fiber followed the shape of a rat: a large egg-shaped body in the middle with a small head on the one and a long tail on the other end. The great collector of Polynesian art Harry Geoffrey Beasley (1881-1939) who featured the offered lot in his article "Some Polynesian Cuttlefish Baits" in 1921, recounts one of the versions of the underlying myth as follows (Beasley 1921: 101): "A Rat one day fell off a canoe into the sea, and landed on the head of a Cuttlefish, greatly to the alarm of both. The cuttlefish was going to shake off the Rat, when the latter prayed him to show mercy on him and carry him to a place where his grandfather and grandmother were waiting for him, so the kind Cuttlefish swam on and on till he was weary, but the Rat enjoyed the new mode of travel, and urged him to go farther and farther. At last they neared a grassy bank which was just where the Rat wished to land, but being an ungenerous animal himself he feared the Cuttlefish would play him some trick, so he cried, 'Oh, please do not land me there; I shall surely die.' But the Cuttlefish being weary of him swam straight to the bank, whereupon the Rat jumped ashore, and instead of thanking his kind deliverer he ran away jeering - so now the Cuttlefish hates the Rat, and is always on the watch to seize him and punish him." In another version of the myth (loc. cit.: 100-101), the Rat, in addition to not thanking the cuttlefish, makes fun of him for his bald head to which the furious cuttlefish responds: "'Wait till I get you in the water, and then I will give you a bald head,' [...] Since then the Rat and the Cuttlefish have been deadly enemies. This is why, when the cuttlefish sees the bait, it thinks it is its ancient enemy the Rat, and rushing out to seize it clings to it so strongly that the fisherman easily brings it to the surface before the arms can be unclasped."

According to Beasley scholar Lucie Carreau (personal communication, August 27, 2013), the offered lot is recorded in Beasley's register as number "969": "TAHITI: Bait for squid formed of numerous pieces of the tiger cowrie shell, with two plaited sinnet tails. Bt at the Sale of the Marquis of Townshend, Frognal, Sidcup." 

Carreau further clarifies the presence of "Sydney", "Frognal" and "Sidcup" on the label (personal communication, August 29, 2013): "Frognal House is located in Sidcup (Greater London) and was purchased by Thomas Townshend in 1752. It became the residence of his son, Thomas Townshend, 1st Viscount Sydney (1733-1800), after whom Sydney, Australia, was named. He gained the title of Baron Sydney of Chislehurst (in the same neighbourhood as Sidcup and where Beasley ended up living) in 1783 and became Viscount Sydney in 1789. Sydney Cove and the settlement that became Sydney were named after him in 1788 by Governor Arthur Phillip.

"The title of Viscount passed down to his son, John Townshend 2nd Viscount Sydney. The 2nd son of the Viscount, John Robert Townshend, was titled 1st Earl Sydney and apparently 3rd Viscount Sydney and his title died with him in 1890 having had no children. Frognal House was inherited by Lord Sydney's nephew Robert Marsham, who assumed the additional surname of Townshend in accordance with his uncle's will. In 1915, the house was sold by the family [...] and the house was turned into a hospital in 1917. So, to me, it looks like the sale where Beasley bought the object on 10 May 1915 was a private sale of private property conducted in the actual house."

The connection between the "Sydney collection" and a "Marquis of Townshend", as suggested by the label of Beasley's squid bait, remains unclear, as Carreau explains: "The Townshend from Frognal House are related to the Marquess Townshend, although they are from a slightly different branch, the first Marquess of Townshend and the first Viscount of Sydney sharing the same grandfather." A possible source for Beasley's squid bait could exist in the person of Lord James Townshend (1785-1842), a British naval commander and younger son of George Townshend, 1st Marquess Townshend, who served as Captain in the Royal Navy, in particular on HMS Dublin in the 1830s, and was stationed in South America. However, given that by then his branch was already fairly distant from the Townshends of Frognal House his ownership is perhaps not the most lilkely and future scholarship may well bring to light another source of Beasley's squid bait.