Wake Forest University’s Museum of Anthropology has an 18th-century Fijian carved wooden dish that was gifted or traded to James Cook during a visit to Tonga. Some ethnographers believe the shape is a representation of a bird because three points on one side ostensibly represent a beak,2 while others claim the shape represents the indigenous leba fruit that was used to scent body oil.3
For the last 40 years, this dish has been a valued object in the Museum’s collection. By any reckoning, the Appalachian Piedmont of North Carolina, where the Wake Forest campus is located, is a very long way from the tropical forests and reefs of Fiji. One might well wonder just how this dish came to reside here. The object’s circuitous travels make an interesting story.
The Story Begins – James Cook
During Captain Cook’s voyages to the Pacific, he did not visit the Fiji Islands, apart from the outlying islet of Vatoa during his Second Voyage. Cook did not stop or speak to any islanders, and described it as “an Island of so little consequence”.4
Cook did, however, spend considerable time amongst the Tongan Islands, visiting them during his Second and Third Voyages. There was a considerable exchange of gifts and of trade goods between the Europeans and the Tongans. By most accounts, Cook and his men quite liked the Tongan people, going so far as to name them “the friendly isles or Archipelago, from the extraordinary courteous and friendly disposition of their inhabitants”.5
This information leads to the question: how did Cook obtain a Fijian artifact without landing on Fiji?
The most logical conclusion is that he obtained it while on Tonga. The evidence shows that it was given to him during his Second or Third Voyage either by Tongans who made the dish a special gift or directly from Fijian traders who were staying on Tonga when Cook was there. A few years later, the French explorer Bruni d’Entrecasteaux sailed to Tonga, and obtained similar items in similar circumstances. In accounts of his travels, the method by which artifacts went from Fiji to Tonga to Europe is explained.
According to historian Andy Mills, it is possible to draw parallels between the gifting practices that took place in Tonga when Cook was there, and those that took place when d’Entrecasteaux was there. Because the objects obtained by d’Entrecasteaux “were obtained in southern Tonga at such a fixed time, they can be usefully compared with the collections made there during the British voyages of James Cook (1773–4 and 1777)”.6
The gifting or trading of Fijian oil dishes to the Europeans by the Tongans likely shows the inter-island cultural significance of such items. In Fijian, this oil dish is called a sedri ni waiwai and takes the form of an intricately carved bowl. The Wake Forest sedri ni waiwai is typical of these bowls, and was used as a vessel for mixing pigments and perfumes with coconut oil. For the Fijians, applying colored, perfumed oil to the skin of bete (priests) was a common practice.7
Ashton Lever was a member of a Manchester family that had grown fabulously wealthy in the cloth industry. Not needing to earn a living, Lever kept busy by indulging his two great passions: archery and collecting. Having begun collecting in 1760, Lever had by 1775 amassed a huge collection of stuffed animals, shells, and fossils. At this point he began expanding the scope of his collecting into ethnographic items from non-European cultures.8
In 1775, when Cook arrived back in England after his Second Voyage, it appears he sent many items that he had gathered to Lever. According to Sophie La Roche, a visitor, Cook “so much admired this good Ashton’s intellect, that he gave him a complete collection of all kinds of South Sea curiosities”.9 In addition, Lever also obtained items brought back by other members of Resolution’s company.
Upon the return of Resolution to England in 1780, Lever once again acquired a large number of specimens. Several people helped him obtain items. For example, Lever wrote a letter stating he “has the pleasure that... through the patronage and liberality of Lord Sandwich...[and] Mrs. Cook that he is now in possession of the most capital part of the curiosities brought over by the Resolution and Discovery on the last voyage”.10
The oil dish, along with a host of other Cook-related ethnographic finds, soon went on display at Lever’s recently opened Holophusicon museum in the stylish London neighborhood of Leicester Square. The word holophusicon means “the place that embraces all of nature”. It was by all accounts a splendid museum with thousands of scientific, historical, and ethnographic items in its collection. Because the English public had taken a great interest in all things Cook-related, the museum did excellent business despite its very high admission fees.
By 1786, the Holophusicon found itself on shaky ground as a business proposition. Revenue from admission fees did not cover the expenses of operating the museum. Although Lever tried to find a buyer, no one came forward. Unwilling to break up his beloved collection and sell it piecemeal at auction, Lever decided to raffle off his collection via a public lottery. One winner would own the entire collection of the Holophusicon, one of the largest private museums in the world. The plan was to sell 36,000 lottery tickets at one guinea per ticket.
However, despite a great deal of advertising and promotion, Lever sold only 8,000 tickets.
There was some speculation at the time that this small number of sales was what Lever actually desired, as he would automatically hold the other 28,000 tickets in the auction. In this scenario, Lever’s hope was that one of his own numbers would be drawn, thus allowing him to retain both his collection and the money from the ticket sales.11 On 23 March, 1786, the lottery was held. For Lever, it was a high-stakes, winner-takes-all wager. When ticket 34119 was picked, the entire contents of the museum were won, much to Lever’s dismay, by one James Parkinson.
James Parkinson is variously described as a retailer of legal supplies, a lawyer, a land agent, the proprietor of “a pleasure garden”, or a dentist.12 However, irrespective of his actual background, Parkinson, who had little experience in collecting museum objects or exhibiting them to the public, now owned one of the largest collections of ethnographic artifacts and natural science specimens. Clearly, Parkinson had some big decisions to make. After evaluating the situation, he moved the vast collection (including the sedri ni waiwai) from Leicester Square across the River Thames to the less fashionable area at the foot of Blackfriars Bridge, in an effort to lower the rent and make the museum profitable.13 Parkinson also changed the name of the collection from the rather mystifying sounding “Holophusicon” to the much more straightforward (and easier to pronounce) “Leverian Museum”. The building it was moved to was known as “the Rotunda”.
In its new location and with lower entrance fees, the museum initially proved to be very popular.14 Over time though, interest in the museum again waned. Ticket sales declined and the Leverian was unable to continue operating as it was losing money. In 1806, after a decent run of 20 years, Parkinson reluctantly closed it. As per the now late Sir Ashton’s wishes, Parkinson attempted to sell the collection as a whole to the British Museum. Unfortunately, his efforts failed due to an enduring enmity between Joseph Banks and the deceased Lever. James Farington, a London socialite, wrote in his diary that “Parkinson says Sir Joseph hated Sir Ashton Lever & therefore hates the collection”.15 Banks’s hard feelings quashed any hope for a deal between Parkinson and the British Museum.
Unable to sell it as a whole, Parkinson was forced to auction off the collection piece by piece. On the ninth day of the auction, the first item to be auctioned was number 963, described as “Meat dish, Otaheite”.16 It was neither a meat dish nor was it Tahitian in origin, but was the Fijian sedri ni waiwai.
The successful bidder for the bowl was John Rowe, a Baptist minister, who attended the auction, and purchased items for at least two people, including his wealthy brother-in-law Richard Hall Clarke of Devonshire.17 Rowe bought about 150 items for Clarke, which were packed up and shipped west to Devonshire.
Three years later, in 1809, Clarke had so much stuff in his burgeoning collection that he built a fine stone building at his estate in Bridwell, Uffculme, Devonshire, to store and display it.18 This museum was known as “the chapel” from its shape. Clarke’s extensive ethnographic holdings included many items purchased from the Leverian auction, including the oil dish.19 According to the website of Bridwell’s current owners, “Richard Hall Clarke built the chapel with the sole purpose of paying tribute to the great English explorer, Captain James Cook... the museum was packed to capacity with a multitude of items, with artefacts from Hawaii making up the bulk of the collection”.20
For the next 158 years, Cook’s Fijian oil dish was exhibited to the curious travelers who stopped to visit this quiet museum in England’s West Country. However, times change. After a long period, the descendants of the Clarke family found themselves either unwilling or unable to maintain the Chapel Museum any longer. In 1967, the oil dish and other items went for auction. This time the auction took place in Torquay under the direction of auctioneers Bearnes and Waycotts.21 The oil dish was purchased by the art dealer Ernest Ohly, crated up, and shipped off to Barnet, in the suburbs of north London, where his Abbey Art Centre was located.
The Abbey Art Centre was established shortly after World War II, when Ernest Ohly’s father, William, founded a live-in artist colony to benefit the sometimes avant-garde artists trying to establish themselves in London’s contemporary art scene.22 An important part of the art colony was a small ethnographic museum located in the property’s old tithe barn. The resident artists often took objects from the museum’s collection for their sketching exercises.23
This small museum became the oil dish’s new home.24 Although exact dates are now hard to pin down, it is clear that the dish did not long remain at the art center. The dish’s 170-year repose in a trio of English museums came to an end and the object entered a new phase—the world of high stakes, high priced art collectors and dealers.
In the 1960s, London was one of the world’s centers of African and South Pacific art collections, and Ralph Nash was one of its top dealers.25 Nash likely spotted the sedri ni waiwai on display at the Abbey Art Centre and became interested in it. A deal was struck between Nash and Ohly, and the oil dish was removed to Nash’s collection. But Nash didn’t hold on to the dish for long, and apparently sold the dish in short order to another dealer, Alexander Martin.26
In 1970, Martin opened a new gallery specializing in African and Oceanic art at the back of the Economist building near fashionable St. James’s Square in London.27 To market his gallery, Martin published a catalog in which the oil dish was pictured. It was described as a “Fijian Dish From the Leverian Museum founded in 1775 and dispersed in 1806”.28
At this point, the oil dish possibly caught the eye of George Ortiz, one of the world’s foremost collectors of African and Oceanic art. Ortiz was a quiet but somewhat controversial collector. Presumably, he liked what he saw in Martin’s catalog, and purchased the oil dish.
Now the trajectory of the sedri ni waiwai took a rather dramatic turn.
New Owner – George Ortiz
Ortiz’s maternal grandfather, Simon Iturri Patiño, was an extremely wealthy man. Known as the “Tin King” or the “Andean Rockefeller” because he owned most of Bolivia’s tin mines, his wealth was so vast it was nearly unfathomable.29 On 3 October, 1977, Ortiz’s five-year-old daughter, Graziella, was kidnapped in broad daylight off a street in Cologny, Switzerland. The kidnappers held her for a US$2,000,000 ransom. Despite his grandfather’s one-time extreme wealth, George Ortiz told newspaper reporters that “the family fortunes are no longer what they once were”. The kidnappers remained adamant in their demands, and Ortiz was forced to raise the money by borrowing from family and friends. He did so, and little Graziella was released unharmed.
Only weeks later, in December, a bullet riddled corpse was discovered in Auxerre, France. The dead man, Giovanni Rumi, was found to be in possession of some of the ransom money. This led investigators to Rumi’s girlfriend who, in turn, led them to three other men. All of them were tried, convicted, and imprisoned. However, the majority of the money was never recovered.30
Whilst all of this was going on, the Fijian bowl was on loan to the Bernice P. Bishop Museum in Honolulu, for an exhibition of “Artificial Curiosities” collected on the three Pacific voyages of Captain James Cook. That exhibition extended from 18 January to 31 August, 1978.31
In June, despite Cook’s Fijian bowl being on display in Hawai`i, the financially distressed Ortiz consigned 234 pieces of his art and antiquities collection to Sotheby’s in London to raise the money to repay his borrowings for the ransom.32 It had come down to a decision between selling his chateau or the collection. Ortiz said, “My family needs somewhere to live, so I had no choice”.33
The oil dish was purchased on 29 June, 1978, by J. Gordon Hanes Jr. of Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was head of Hanes Corp, one of the largest clothing manufacturers in the United States. He was also a well-known philanthropist, and his charitable interests included North Carolina’s art and cultural institutions. In all, Hanes purchased 31 ethnographic artifacts and specimens from the former Ortiz collection.
Hanes made this purchase not for the sake of his own private collection, but to increase the breadth and depth of the collection at Wake Forest’s Museum of Anthropology. In 1978, this now highly regarded anthropological museum was still in its nascency. During conversations with the museum’s founder, Dr. E. Pendleton Banks, the two men discussed ideas about growing the museum by increasing the size and quality of its collection. Hanes, therefore, gifted the oil dish to Wake Forest University’s Museum of Anthropology, along with a large number of other objects, with the specific intent of significantly adding to the museum’s Pacific artifact collection.34
Thus, after a long history of voyages and adventures, the Fijian sedri ne waiwai collected by James Cook 235 years earlier became a valued artifact in the collection of the Wake Forest University Museum of Anthropology, playing an important role in the growth of this institution.
Originally published in Cook's Log, page 4, volume 44, number 2 (2021).
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