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Breastplate (civavonovono)

Whale ivory, pearl shell, plant fiber
Tailevu province, Melanesia, Fiji, Oceania
Arms & armor, bone & shell
Current Location
Not on view
diameter: 9 1/16 in. (23 cm)
Credit Line
Bequest of Morton D. May
Public Domain
Object Number
Breastplates were very valuable personal items. A breastplate would be hung by a cord around a man’s neck, with a second cord fastened around his upper torso. This breastplate was probably made by a Tongan or Samoan craftsman for a Viti chief. The individual plates were drilled at the back so that they could be fastened internally with a Samoan canoe-builder’s knot. The back of the ivory plates is a deep yellow color, achieved by soaking the individual plates in coconut oil, then smoking them over a smoldering fire which was fed with sugary slivers. The front, however, has returned to the ivory’s natural creamy color after prolonged exposure to light.
- 1929
W. A. Miller of Suva, Fiji, and Rugby, England

1929 - 1979
James Thomas Hooper (1897-1971), England, purchased from W. A. Miller; Estate of James Thomas Hooper [1]

In auction “Melanesian and Polynesian Art from the James Hooper Collection,” Christie, Manson and Woods, London, June 19, 1979, lot no. 122 [2]

- 1981
HRN Primitives (Ronnie Nasser), New York, NY, USA

1981 - 1983
Morton D. May (1914-1983), St. Louis, MO, USA, acquired from HRN Primitives, by exchange [3]

1983 -
Saint Louis Art Museum, bequest of Morton D. May [4]

[1] This object was No. 843 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]. The corresponding description identified that Hooper acquired this object from W. A. Miller of Suva, Fiji and Rugby, England in 1929. It was included in the 1979 auction of the Hooper Collection [“Melanesian and Polynesian Art from the James Hooper Collection,” Christie, Manson and Woods, London, June 19, 1979, lot no. 122]. 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]. According to the price list supplied by Christie’s, this object was sold to an unknown buyer.

[2] See Note [1].

[3] An invoice dated January 8, 1981 from HRN Primitives to Morton D. May documents May’s acquisition of this object, listed as “Breastplate, early 19th century Polynesia, Fiji / mosaic of pearl shell and whale ivory; with sennit cord.” May traded two German paintings for 1557:1983, a canoe prow [1558:1983], and a coconut grater [1559:1983] [May Archives, Saint Louis Art Museum].

[4] 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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