It’s all in his house in Honolulu, which is utterly startling. You walk in and there’s Queen Ka‘ahumanu’s kapa on the wall, a wooden turtle owned by Fiji’s great chief Cakobau next to the sofa, a stone ti‘i from a Tahitian marae over by the sideboard. Maori feather boxes cover the coffee table. There’s the cup Bligh used to measure rations after the mutiny on the Bounty, Paul Gauguin’s poi pounder on Hiva O‘a: Every nook of the house has something extraordinary. Blackburn pulls open a drawer and looks in. “This is Kapi‘olani’s necklace,” he says, and beside it, “Lili‘uokalani’s feather lei.” The next drawer has necklaces from the Marquesas made of porpoise teeth; the next, Maori hand clubs. Paddles from Rapa Nui— triumphs of line and form that would be right at home in the MoMA—are suspended on an adjoining wall. Even the bathroom has a mindblower: Hanging over the toilet is an Oct. 27, 1906 edition of the Fiji Times newspaper printed on kapa.
|Blackburn and his wife Carolyn have spent four decades studying and gathering Polynesian art and today have the finest private collection in the world. Among the pieces in their living room are Moari ihu waka tete, or canoe prows, and maoi kavakava and moai tangata statuary from Rapa Nui.|
At one point Blackburn places a club in my hands. It’s about the size of a baseball bat, ruddy brown, and every inch of its surface has been scored and etched. “This is the finest object ever created in Tonga,” he says, though words aren’t needed to tell me that I’m holding a masterpiece. Then he launches into the club’s story, at least as much as he knows: It was presented to Captain James Cook, likely by the Tu‘i Tonga himself, on the explorer’s third and final voyage. It would have been carried on one of Cook’s ships to Hawai‘i, where Cook was killed, and then taken back to England, where it was placed in the Holophusicon, a “museum of natural curiosities” in London. When the museum closed and its collection was put up for auction in 1806, the club disappeared.
The story picks up again 180 years later on a snowy day in 1986. Blackburn has driven from Pennsylvania to New York to look at three Polynesian clubs for sale. He buys them all, including an ornate Tongan one; for that piece he pays $21,000. “Are you nuts?!” his wife Carolyn protests when he gets back to Pennsylvania; at that point Polynesian clubs are going for at most $3,000 to $4,000 on the collector’s market. But Mark is convinced he’s done the right thing. And a month later, flipping through a 1968 edition of Art and Artifacts of the Eighteenth Century, he confirms that belief: Glancing through early illustrations of Cook’s items in the Holophusicon, he stops short. There it is: a drawing of Cook’s Tongan club—the very club I am now holding in my hands.