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Figure (Akua ka’ai)

Artist Culture
Hawaiian Islands
18th century
Wood and pigment
Associated with
Hawaii, Polynesia, United States, Oceania
Current Location
Not on view
12 1/16 x 2 1/2 in. (30.7 x 6.3 cm)
Credit Line
Bequest of Morton D. May
Public Domain
Object Number
This small figure with broad shoulders, narrow waist, and bent knees demonstrates the dynamic and athletic character of Hawaiian sculpture of the early 19th century. The long, chiselled facets on the legs and chest are found on many types of Hawaiian sculpture. Large eyes dominate the face, and the slight figure-eight shape of the mouth gives the figure a unique appearance. The crest on top of the head most likely represents the close-fitting feathered wickerwork helmets worn by aristocratic men, particularly as they prepared for battle. The wooden spike at the base suggests this piece was a portable image which may have been wrapped in bark cloth.
Boulter Collection [1]

1850 - 1870
Richard Cuming (1777-1870), London, England [2]

1870 - 1902
H. Syer Cuming (d.1902), London, England, by inheritance [3]

1902 – c. 1946
Cuming Museum, London, England [4]

c. 1946 - 1948
Kenneth A. Webster, London, England, acquired from the Cuming Museum [5]

1948 - 1977
James Thomas Hooper (1897-1971), England, acquired from Kenneth A. Webster; Estate of James Thomas Hooper [6]

1977 - 1983
Morton D. May (1914-1983), St. Louis, MO, USA, purchased at auction of “Hawaiian and Maori Art from the James Hooper Collection,” Christie, Manson and Woods, London, June 21, 1977, lot no. 185 [7]

1983 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, bequest of Morton D. May [8]

The main source for this provenance is a 1979 exhibition catalog [Kaeppler, Adrienne L. "Eleven Gods Assembled: An Exhibition of Hawaiian Wooden Images." Honolulu: Bishop Museum Press, 1979, p. 14]. Exceptions and other supporting documents are noted.

[1] The piece is inscribed on the back in black ink "Sandwich Is. Got from Mr. Boulter." Mr. Boulter was probably Daniel Boulter of Yarmouth, England, owner of a museum/shop at the end of the 18th century and possessor of many pieces collected by Cook on his voyages.

[2] Richard Cuming was an amateur scientist and collector. According to Cuming's manuscript catalog (quoted by Kaeppler), he purchased the piece on July 6, 1850. Kaeppler suggests that Cuming may have purchased the piece from Mr. Boulter or his descendants, or from an intermediate unknown owner.

[3] H. Syer Cuming was the son of Richard Cuming.

[4] The Cuming Museum was established by will of H. Syer Cuming in 1902. From 1930 to 1948 the museum was closed and was bombed with fire-bombs in World War II. During this period, a number of important ethnographic artifacts entered the collection of Kenneth A. Webster.

[5] See Note [4]. In an email dated March 5, 2001 from Steven Hooper to Michael Gunn, curator at the Saint Louis Art Museum, Hooper stated “Kenneth Webster got…that around 1946 and several other Polynesian things from the [Cuming] museum, which he then swapped with my grandfather [James T. Hooper]” [copy of email in SLAM document files].

[6] James Hooper acquired the piece in 1948 from Kenneth A. Webster ["Hawaiian and Maori Art from the late James T. Hooper's Collection." Christie, Manson and Woods, London, June 21, 1977, p. 54]. This object was No. 271 in the Hooper Collection [Phelps, Steven. Art and Artefacts of the Pacific, Africa and the Americas: The James Hooper Collection. London: Hutchinson and Company, 1976]. In an email dated February 22, 2012 from Steven Hooper to Amy Clark of the Saint Louis Art Museum, Hooper stated “after my grandfather died in 1971 the entire collection belonged to his estate, “The Estate of James Thomas Hooper,” until items were sold at the series of auctions.” [copy of email in SLAM document files].

[7] See Note [6]. An invoice dated June 21, 1977 from Christie, Manson and Woods to Morton D. May documents the purchase of this object [May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum].

[8] Last Will and Testament of M. D. May dated June 11, 1982 [copy, May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum]. Minutes of the Acquisitions and Loans Committee of the Board of Trustees, Saint Louis Art Museum, September 20, 1983.
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