A group of nearly twenty Native Hawaiians have put on hold their vacation plans in Paris, opting instead to protest the sale of a massive collection of Hawaiian artifacts in front of a French auction house.
Edward Halealoha Ayau and eighteen others had long been planning a trip to the city, but instead of spending Wednesday sightseeing, the group decided to hold signs and try to speak to representatives of the Aguttes auction after seeing the story of next week's sale on Hawaii News Now.
The signs said "Don't Sell My Kupuna," "#BoycottBock" and "Aguttes Sells Human Remains."
Representatives from Aguettes called the collection the world's largest privation collection of Hawaiian art. It says the catalog of 1,100 items from Hawaii and throughout Polynesia are worth as much as $2,000,000. The items include necklaces, poi pounders and bowls, as well as a spear from Captain Cook's expedition to the Hawaiian Islands, dated around 1780.
Ayau says the sale of Hawaiian artifacts "makes us feel less than human."
He and other members of the group are former members of the dissolved Hawaiian organization Hui Malama I Na Kupuna O Hawai'i Nei, a group that used to conduct the repatriation of over ancestral Hawaiian human remains and other sacred objects.
The organization operated under a U.S. law called the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act.
Ayau says someone from Aguttes told the group a representative was unavailable to speak with them on Wednesday. They wanted to find out the provenance or origin of the items by the seller, Rainer Werner Bock, an art collector who lives on Maui.
"We wanted the seller to confirm through documentation the acquisition of these items," Ayau said. "Where he got them from. Who he got them from and under what circumstances.
"If someone is trying to sell our heritage, we look into these transactions to make sure that they are legitimate, that these items where acquired by the consent of the family that created them and that they were not the result of illegal trafficking of culture items," he added.
Bock, who declined to be interviewed over the phone for this story, told Hawaii News Now in a series of text messages that he has tried for a decade to establish a museum on Maui, reaching out to several organizations on both Maui and Oahu.
He says he did not contact the Bishop Museum, however, believing they had better and more important pieces.
Last year, Bock says, he gave up and decided to sell his collection.
"I never imagined being vilified for loving Hawaiian culture. I do love Hawaii and it's culture, and I spent hard earned money buying Hawaiian art all over the world to bring it back to Hawaii," he wrote via text. "It's not my fault that nobody supported me in my dream to help make a museum."
Aguttes did not respond to our request for comment on the controversy, but a spokeswoman on Monday said that the origin of some of the items -- like the spear -- is documented.
"After research in several documents, we found out it entered into the collection of the Earl of Warick, an antique British dealer at the time of the expedition of Captain Cook. The provenance is very well known. That's why we came up with the authenticity," said Philippine de Clermont-Tonnerre.
The answer did not sit well with the Hawaii group in Paris, since they're concerned about how the items originally left Hawaiian hands.
"Were they taken from a grave? Were they taken from a family without consent. Were they taken from a cave?" asked Ayau. "Were these items where a family placed these items at?"
Representative Kaniela Ing of Maui also decried the sale of the items on Wednesday.
"Here is a rich guy and an auctioneer, trying to make millions off Hawaiian artifacts without reaching out to Bishop Museum or to the Office of Hawaiian Affairs for authentication," he said in a statement. "It's irresponsible, unprofessional, and disrespectful to our culture."
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