Lot 28
  • 28

Marine Ivory Inlaid Club, Tonga

70,000 - 100,000 USD
137,500 USD
bidding is closed


  • wood, tooth of a sperm whale (Physeter Macrocephalus)


Lance & Roberta Entwistle, London
American Private Collection, acquired from the above on December 8, 1995

Catalogue Note

The present inlaid club, of the apa'apai type, is a magnificent example of the artistry of Tongan craftsmen. It is carved from Casuarina equisetifolia, called toa in Tongan, an exceptionally dense wood. The manner in which the craftsmen carved these clubs amazed early European visitors. In 1792 the French naturalist Jacques Labillardière saw men 'employed in cutting out [clubs] with shark's teeth fixed at the extremity of a piece of wood [...]. We were astonished to see them cut with such a chisel the wood of the casuarina, notwithstanding its extreme hardness.' (Labillardière, Relation du voyage a la recherche de La Pérouse, 1800, vol. II, p. 143). The surface of the present club is almost entirely covered in engraved geometric designs and a number of glyphs, which include human figures, sharks, turtles, and an octopus. St Cartmail observes that these glyphs may be seen as totems through which the artist or owner of the club 'identified with ancestral spirits and deities on whom he depended […] for his being.’ (St Cartmail, The Art of Tonga, 1997, p. 134).

The present club is further embellished with 40 inlaid pieces of meticulously cut sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) teeth. These teeth had enormous prestige in Fiji and Tonga, and were regarded as sacred objects (St Cartmail, ibid., p. 98). The inlays take a variety of forms, which here include a star, crescents, and abstract birds. Their presence indicates the great prestige of this club, and the chiefly or priestly status of its original owner. William Mariner recounts an incident from the life of Fīnau ʻUlukālala I ('hot headed') that illustrates the immense value of sperm whale teeth, which were the prerogative of the great chiefs. Having heard that a whale had been beached off a small island inhabited solely by a married couple, Fīnau 'immediately sailed for this place, and finding the teeth taken from the whale, questioned the man [… who] defended his innocence on the plea that teeth would be of no use to him since every chief who could afford to give their value would question his right to them, and take them from him […] for the same reason, he could not wear them. Not satisfied with this plea […Fīnau] ordered him to be immediately dispatched with a club' (Mariner, An Account of the Natives of the Tonga Islands, 1817, vol. I, pp. 313-314).

An inlaid club was, then, an item of great status and mana, which could also be an item of religious significance; the Wesleyan missionary John Thomas observed that 'many of the gods had what was called the hala, or way, which was a carved club – most sacred, by which the god was supposed to enter the priest.' (Thomas in Larsson, Fijian Studies, 1960, p. 67). When a mātapule (a chief's attendant) converted to Christianity in 1831 he gave Thomas 'his club called ’Hala […]' and said that 'he cast away his spirit on the devil who had hitherto guided him for the club he gave me was that by which he used to devine, it was the road for the spirit.' (Thomas in Veys, Unwrapping Tongan Barkcloth, 2017, p. 73).

Clubs were also important objects of exchange from the earliest meetings between Tongans and Europeans. A number of clubs were collected in 1773 during Cook's Second Voyage, and Labillardière records an important exchange between Fīnau ʻUlukālala I and Bruni d'Entrecasteaux in 1793. Fīnau presented 'the largest hog that we had yet seen [… and] likewise two very fine clubs, made of casuarina wood, inlaid with plates of bone, some cut round, others in the form of starfish, and others representing birds […]' (Labillardière, ibid., pp. 95-96).