From the August/September 2013 Issue:

Pacific Time

    Writer: Leslie Gilbert Elman |

Oceanic and Eskimo art and objects are gaining notice among collectors

Article Photo
enlarge | This little walrus tusk figure with a glass bead ornament in the corner of its mouth would have been used by a shaman to represent a protective spirit or iinruq. The stripes incised at the corners of the eyes and on the shoulders indicate tattoos. It was made in the eighteenth or nine­teenth century and was collected by a U.S. naval officer on assign­ment in Alaska in the 1890s.
The thing that struck me most on a recent visit to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City was not how crowded it was (it’s always crowded), but how uncrowded the galleries devoted to Oceanic and Pacific art were. I ducked into them for relief from the waves of people flowing toward whatever the featured exhibition was that day, and I felt the way I imagined some nineteenth-century sailor might have felt the first time he set eyes on the islands of the Pacific: captivated by the beauty I saw there.

A few weeks later, at TEFAF, The European Fine Art and Antiques Fair, I spoke with exhibitors from Galerie Meyer, a Paris-based dealer that specializes in Oceanic and Eskimo art to find out what it is about these objects and artifacts that makes them so appealing and why they remain under the radar of many collectors.

Article Photo
enlarge | The elongated T shape of this penu, a device used for pounding breadfruit into poi, indicates it came from the island of Maupiti in French Polynesia and that it probably belonged to a prominent member of the community. Pounders had to be very heavy; this one is made from basalt, a very dense, very hard volcanic rock.
Human Touch
“They’re made by people with a connection to nature,” the dealer told me. “There are animal figures, human figures and blended figures…a shamanic quality. And one thing you’ll notice: Many figures are smiling.”

She was right. The smiling faces on the figures, masks and carvings draw you in and engage you. Even such objects as an u’u, a Polynesian ceremonial war club that presumably was not intended to appear friendly, possess a strong and uplifting life essence. In the carvings there are faces within faces within faces; lizards lurking in the borders. The more you look the more you see; but you must look.

“These objects don’t tend to attract casual or new collectors because they require some understanding, and their importance is not always obvious,” the dealer explained. “Most of the oldest Pacific island pieces date back only to the eighteenth century. Not as old as Egypt or Greece.”

Article Photo
enlarge | Carved from walrus tusk, this figure of a crouching arctic hare has a slit in its underside where it would have held the crescent-shaped blade of an ulu, the traditional Eskimo knife used for everything from scraping animal skins to preparing food to barbering. It could be anywhere from 500 to 1,000+ years old.
Materials at Hand
Yet compared with the number of Egyptian or Greek antiquities bought and sold by collectors and museums, Pacific island objects are relatively scarce. “They were made of wood, and wood degenerates so there are not a lot to be had,” the dealer said.

Wood was not the only material available to Oceanic craftsmen, however. They wove baskets from cane; carved implements from stone; developed a process by which turtle shells were softened, shaped and polished to make ceremonial dishes; and pounded the bark of certain trees flat to make a coarse cloth called tap, which they decorated with geometric patterns. Among the more unusual pieces Galerie Meyer showed at TEFAF was a walrus ivory pendant hanging on a necklace made from strands of braided human hair.

Eskimo art, which is more likely to qualify as “ancient” with some pieces dating back to 300 A.D., is often crafted from walrus ivory and other types of bone. These natural materials develop a lovely patina and smoothness with use and time. They also give the pieces a touchable quality you won’t feel as readily from, say, a Roman bronze or a Greek marble. You’ll want to run your fingers over the surface of the basalt penu from Polynesia and feel the weight of the knife handle shaped like an arctic hare. The human quality is palpable.

Made With a Purpose
Although these pieces are beautiful to look at, and they are collected exclusively as art objects, they were made to be used—either for ceremonial purposes or as tools. The heavy T-shaped penu was used to pound taro or breadfruit into poi. The arctic hare formed the handle of an ulu, the semicircular multipurpose knife that might be considered the most important tool in an Eskimo household.

Another object Galerie Meyer had on offer was a gut scraper made of fossilized walrus tusk and measuring about six inches long. It was used to remove fat and tissue from animal skins and intestines so they could be made into bags and clothing. Yet on display, it’s simply something to be admired.

If you’re intrigued by what you see, take the opportunity to become educated. Visit the Oceanic and Eskimo art collections at the Met and at the Newark Museum to appreciate these objects for their beauty, their workmanship and their cultural significance. Investigate, a recently created, fee-based database that tracks the provenance and sale history of African, Asian, Oceanic and American Indian art and objects.

If you’re interested in collecting, look for specialist dealers at dedicated events, such as the annual New York Tribal Art Week, which marked its fourth year in May with sales at galleries and auction houses in New York City. Collectors are relatively few but deeply passionate, so while you shouldn’t expect to find bargains you will find buying opportunities. As the dealer from Galerie Meyer explained: “There is a limited amount available, but while the prices are ‘up there,’ you can still buy a first-rate piece of Oceanic art for the price of a third-rate Impressionist painting.”

Leslie Gilbert Elman writes about antiques and other subjects for Design NJ.


Galerie Meyer Oceanic and Eskimo Art/
Metropolitan Museum of Art/
New York Tribal Art Week/
Newark Museum/
TEFAF, the European Fine Art and Antiques Fair/

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