Lot 122
  • 122

Pole Club, Rarotonga or Atiu, Cook Islands

200,000 - 300,000 USD
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  • wood
  • Height: 90 in (228 cm)


Reverend John Williams, collected in situ in 1823 or 1827-1828
By family descent to his granddaughter, Clacton, Essex
James Hooper, Arundel, acquired from the above in 1930
Christie's, London, Melanesian and Polynesian Art from the James Hooper Collection, June 19, 1979, lot 168
British Rail Pension Fund, London, acquired at the above auction
Sotheby's, London, July 11, 1988, lot 18, consigned by the above
Masco Collection, Detroit, acquired at the above auction
Californian Private Collection, acquired from the above


The Kimbell Museum, Fort Worth, Island Ancestors: Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection, September 24 - December 4, 1994, and travelling: Honolulu Academy of Arts, February 2 - March 26, 1995; The Detroit Institute of Arts, June 11 - August 6, 1995; North Carolina Museum of Art, Raleigh, March 9 - May 5, 1996


Steven Phelps, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas, London, 1976, pp. 141-142, pls. 77-78, no. 606
Charles W. Mack, Polynesian Art at Auction, 1965-1980, Northboro, 1982, p. 245, pl. 108, no. 6
Allen Wardwell, Island Ancestors: Oceanic Art from the Masco Collection, Detroit, 1994, p. 195, no. 76


Very good condition for an object of this type and age. Some thin age cracks in places. Minor marks, nicks, chips, and scratches throughout. Some small old losses to the points of the "head", as visible in the catalogue illustration. Exceptionally fine glossy dark worn patina, revealing the reddish tone of the wood in places.
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

Amongst the pantheon of Polynesian weapons the pole clubs or ‘akatara of Rarotonga or Atiu in the Cook Islands stand at the summit. These superbly elegant and refined weapons were objects of great prestige, imbued with the spiritual power, mana, of their warrior owners. The present ‘akatara is a particularly exceptional example of its type, notable for the balance of its composition, the presence of several small ‘god’ figures around the collar, and the extraordinarily fine quality of the carving, notable both in the crisply carved blade and in the exceptional flanged butt.

‘Akatara were carved from ironwood (Casuarina equisetifolia), known in the Cook Islands as toa. The club was made of the heart, or taiki, of this exceptionally hard wood; it is interesting to note that taiki also means “a veteran of war” (Savage, Dictionary of the Maori Language of Rarotonga, Wellington, 1962), suggesting the quality of strength and hardiness which was valued in both the wood and the warrior who wielded the weapon made from it.

Harding notes that “traditionally the ‘akatara clubs have been assigned to the island of Rarotonga and they are referred to in the oral histories of this island which go back many generations.” (Harding in Sotheby’s, ed., May, 2010, p. XX). Steven Hooper meanwhile suggests that they “were originally made on Atiu, though they may have found their way to Rarotonga and elsewhere. A number of them [including the present example] have collar designs as small figures of the central Cook Islands kind.” (Hooper, Pacific Encounters: Art and Divinity in Polynesia, 1760 – 1860, London, 2006, p. 222). An attribution to Atiu is also supported by the account of William Anderson, surgeon and naturalist on Cook’s third voyage, who saw these clubs there in 1777; he writes that they “were about six feet long or more, made of a hard black wood launce shap’d at the end but much broader, with the edge nicely scallop’d and the whole neatly polish’d” (Beaglehole, ed., The Voyage of the Resolution and Discovery, 1776-1780, Cambridge, 1967, Vol. III, Part 2, p. 841).

Whether found in Atiu or Rarotonga, “the beauty and superb finish of these weapons appealed to early visitors to the islands and most of the ‘akatara now in museums and in private hands were collected during a relatively short period from the 1820s onward […]” (Harding, ibid.). Whilst a great deal of sculpture from Rarotonga was burned in the “fires of infamy” by members of the London Missionary Society (King, Food for The Flames: Idols and Missionaries in Central Polynesia, San Francisco, 2011, p. 66), weapons were often sent back to Britain as fine specimens of native workmanship. The present ‘akatara has the most illustrious provenance possible, for it was collected in situ in the 1820s by the Reverend John Williams (1796-1839), the most renowned evangelist to visit the Cook Islands, where he collected a number of important objects ([see fig. 1]). This ‘akatara was later acquired from one of Williams’ granddaughters by James Hooper, the great English collector of Polynesian objects. As his grandson Steven Hooper notes, “artefacts from [the Cook Islands] are rare and craftsmanship was commonly of a very high order – two aspects which attracted James Hooper’s attention and interest” (Phelps, Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas: the James Hooper Collection, London, 1976, p. 127). 

Dodd described Rarotongan sculptors as “in some ways the ultimate masters [...] They could execute the most intricate fretwork [...] and beautifully controlled rhythmic decorations, but best of all they appreciated the virtues of restraint and spoke most eloquently on plain surfaces. ‘Plain’ is a poor word for them because the subtle undulations, the clearly incised elements, and the superbly defined outlines made these carvings anything but plain.” (Dodd, The Ring of Fire: Polynesian Art, New York, 1967, pp. 255-256). The remarkable ‘akatara offered here stands as proof of this assessment.