Issue 17.2: April / May 2014

A Piece of the Action


Story and photo by Michael Shapiro

Maybe it’s poetic justice to see this beachfront mansion jammed with hollering hoi polloi, all those rubbah slippahs scuffing the white carpets. They’ve come from all over O‘ahu, from every stratum: well-heeled dowagers cradling teacup Yorkies, Waimanalo braddahs checking out the huhu, Honolulu Mayor Kirk Caldwell on the hunt for a Buddha statue and a few Kahala residents here just for the spectacle. The carnival that is the auction of Genshiro Kawamoto’s personal belongings is the strange epilog to a bizarre story, bizarre even in the already weird annals of Hawai‘i real estate.

Over the past decade or so, Kawamoto, a Japanese billionaire and epitome of the eccentric mogul, bought twenty-seven properties along Kahala Avenue for about $170 million. A vacation home, apparently, wasn’t enough; Kawamoto wanted a vacation neighborhood. And what a neighborhood: Kahala Avenue is what the bluest of Hawai‘i’s bluebloods call home, where Henry and Clare Boothe Luce dined with the Kennedys, where Jack Lord of Hawaii Five-O lived, where even an empty lot today could set you back $18 mil.

But it’s what Kawamoto did with the properties that turns the story truly weird. He let grand estates collapse into ruin: Lawns browned, weeds grew from gutters, koi ponds festered. Things went beyond mere neglect; Kawamoto knocked down walls and destroyed whole mansions. He planted museum-quality replicas of Greco-Roman statuary—all of which are for sale today—on his lots, their white marble starkly incongruous under the Polynesian sun. Everyone has a theory about Kawamoto’s thinking; one prevailing suspicion is that he aimed to devalue the surrounding real estate before snapping it up. Whatever his reasons, there went the neighborhood.

Then in 2013 Kahala got an unexpected assist when the Japanese government indicted Kawamoto for tax evasion. Following a brief jail stint he sold all but three of his Kahala Avenue properties (at a loss of $72 million) to local developer Alexander & Baldwin, which in turn had to sell off all the stuff Kawamoto had bought to fill his empty houses. The solution: a one-day auction the likes of which Honolulu has never seen.

The air is thick with cologne, sweat and old upholstery as buyers press around auctioneer Joe Tiepel to bid on Lladró porcelain reproductions of treacly eighteenth-century parlor scenes, snarling brass tigers, breaching glass dolphins and assorted other cheese. Here and there are some real finds— like the brace of cowhide chairs with the hair still on them — but the two hundred or so buyers aren’t being all that discriminating; the bids come as fast as Tiepel can talk. Some want Greek gods at fire sale prices, some have rental properties to furnish and some want a piece— any piece— of history. A few, like Stanton Johnston, are here for spite. Son of prominent Kahala socialite Cecily Johnston, whose home Kawamoto had bought and razed, Johnston is shopping for revenge. “I want to buy a vase or something,” he grins, “and break it.”

In the end more than a thousand people came down to witness the conclusion of the Kawamoto saga, though only about six hundred actually placed a bid. Nearly all 750 items sold for a total of about $300,000. The highest bid? $7,500 for an enormous bronze Chinese lion. And so within the space of one day, the bane of Kahala Avenue faded into more of the memory he’s destined to become. Or, as one of the local guys working security for the auction asked of an HPD officer directing traffic, “Who wuz dis guy anyway?”

“Dunno,” the cop replied. “Some crazy rich dude.”