Woolley & Wallis sold the 84 x 55cm piece of tapa cloth in a sale of tribal art and antiquities on Wednesday (CI time) for 2600 pounds sterling ($4,828), much more than the firm’s initial estimate of $278 - $371 and a more informed pre-sale estimate of $2,785.
Described online as “a Cook Islands tapa cloth ‘fragment’, featuring chequer design of a central star motif in red and black in a radiating square and angled lines,” the cloth came with a handwritten label on the back stating, “Native cloth from Rarotonga or Aitutaki given to Mrs Starling by Revd John Williams....circa 1838.”
Efforts to secure the cloth for the Cook Islands began early this week when Grace Hutton, the Collection Manager of the Oceania collection at Wellington’s Te Papa Museum enquired online if anyone in the Cook Islands was interested in helping to pay for it.
She soon received a reply from Museum Cook Islands director Jean Mason, who on behalf of museum offered $300. Mason said she had offered some money herself and had also invited three local businessmen to help.
“It seems such a shame to lose this opportunity for Cook Islanders,” she wrote in an email to CINews. “Te Papa will take care of the tapa. It is probably one of the oldest surviving CI tapa, collected by Rev John Williams in the 1830s. We would prefer it to return to this part of the world.”
However, Mason said the valuable tapa could never be taken care of at the local museum because of climate and conditions here.
“But it’s not a reason for it not to return to the southern hemisphere. At least the largest population of Cook Islanders live in New Zealand and it’s just as easy for us Cook Islanders in the home country to go to Wellington to view the tapa.”
The tapa had a fine pattern and was probably one of the oldest surviving Cook Islands examples in the world, Mason added.
Within a short time, individuals and businesses in the Cook Islands had pledged over $1000 to help buy the cloth and Hutton registered to bid in the auction, which started at 11pm on Monday night (CI time).
“We were promised $1350.00 plus another $185.00 from Professor Steven Hooper in the UK,” said Hutton in an email this week.
“I bid $1300 knowing that we could cover those costs with the money that was promised. The most I would have bid would have been $1486, but I couldn’t bid more because of the 26.4 per cent buyer’s premium that is added on after the final hammer bid.
“So the final cost on the night was $4,828 plus 26.4 per cent, which is $6106.”
“Then we would have had to organise shipping to New Zealand and insurance, probably another $1000.00.”
Note: Early South Pacific missionary John Williams looms large in Cook Islands history for having introduced Christianity in 1821. He died in November 1839, while visiting a part of the New Hebrides with fellow missionary James Harris. The pair were killed and eaten by cannibals on the island of Eromanga during the missionaries’ attempt to bring them the Gospel.