Blackburn put the collection together with painstaking effort and shrewd judgment. It’s taken a lot of chasing around the planet over the last four decades, he confides, and a lot of detective work. He has any number of adventure stories: of driving in the dead of winter to an isolated, dilapidated Kansas barn that turned out to be filled with valuable Hawaiian artifacts; of hiring an elderly English woman to act as a foil at a blazingly competitive Bonham’s auction. It went off just like in the movies: Everyone was expecting him to make a bid, no one was expecting her, at just the right moment he sent a clandestine signal, she bid, confusion ensued, going once, going twice, sold! and Blackburn got what he’d come for—a rare Maori paddle.
He shows me the paddle, now standing in the corner of his dining room. His satisfaction and zeal are evident, as they always are when he talks about his collection. And so I ask the inevitable question: Why? Why fly off to Paris at the drop of a hat for a painting? Why pay a small fortune for a Fijian ceremonial fork that down in Georgia they once labeled a pickle fork?
When he answers, he’s not dreamy, he’s devout. He speaks of Polynesia’s purity, the uniqueness and refinement of the art, its mana. “It’s the finest tribal art in the world,” he says. “The Polynesians were so advanced. They had one of the most remarkable cultures in history and very little attention’s been paid to it.” Walk into the great museums of the world, he notes, and you’ll find the relics of ancient Egypt, the Romans and the Greeks, ancient Aztec, Mayan, Incan, Indian and Chinese cultures but almost nothing from Polynesia: Its art has always been the rarest art in the world, for the cultures were small and much of what was produced over the millennia has been lost to time, the corrosive climate and cultural upheaval.
Most of what survives on the collector’s market was taken out of Polynesia by early Western explorers, traders and missionaries and passed down through their families. In some cases, stories were lost over the generations and objects eventually disposed of—which is how a Fijian ceremonial fork wound up in a Georgia antique mall labeled a pickle fork. In other cases, families knew well the significance of what they had but simply went broke and needed money—which is how Blackburn wound up with the entire collection of Admiral Abel Aubert Dupetit Thouars, for example, the man who took control of the Marquesas for France in 1842.