With all African & Oceanic art there is a huge premium placed on provenance. The £12,000 achieved by a 19th century Solomon Islands shell ornament (kapkap) was a result not only of its style, but the story behind it.
The kapkap consists of a cut round white tridacna shell on which a smoothed turtle-shell fretwork is secured. The contrast of the white shell background against the filigree creates a ﬁgure-ground reversal effect, highlighting the motif. In this case, we see an abstract representation of a frigate bird hunting fish.
Used as personal decoration, symbols of prestige, for performance and in trade; these objects were in use throughout a wide range of the South Pacific, each possessing a distinctive regional style. The name kapkap is in fact a pidgin term in use throughout Melanesia used to cover almost any pattern shell ornament.
As items of both some importance and decorative quality, they quickly caught the eye of Western explorers, missionaries and traders and were brought back to Europe in relatively large numbers throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries.
For those examples on the private market however, the prior history of the object has often been lost. This creates an issue when such huge importance is placed on provenance. As such, the high price achieved by the present example can be ascribed not just to its fine style, but the history linking it back to the 19th century collection of Charles Coleridge Harper (1866-1943). Harper was an Anglican priest and grandson of the first Archbishop of Christchurch, New Zealand. He travelled widely across the South Pacific as part of the Melanesian Mission, a missionary society formed in the mid 19th century to evangelise huge swathes of the Pacific.
In March 1885 Harper undertook a journey of many months on the 125-ton barque-rigged schooner Southern Cross to various locations across the South Pacific, including the isolated Santa Cruz Islands - where the present example was acquired. Despite their isolation, the Santa Cruz Islands had in fact been the site of the very first European settlement in the South Seas, when Spanish explorer Álvaro de Mendaña attempted to form a colony there in 1568 only for it to fall to sickness, in-fighting and war with the local people.
Even into the late 19th century such journeys remained dangerous, particularly as British ships, known as blackbirders, sailed to these islands to kidnap labourers to work on plantations in Australia or Fiji. Indeed, fourteen years earlier the first Bishop of Melanesia, John Coleridge Patteson (a distant relation of Harper’s) was killed on nearby Nukapu Island by indigenous people five days after blackbirders had killed one man and abducted five others there. On his previous trip to the Santa Cruz in 1861 his two associates had been killed when shot with poisoned arrows.
In this instance though the interactions were peaceful, Harper’s diary entry documenting the trip records:
"the men are all elaborately adorned; they wear breastplates of shell, and armlets of the same material...".
The adornments clearly refer to kapkap, perhaps he was gifted his example by the men he refers to, or maybe he was given one specifically created for trade. However he gained possession of the item, having carefully stowed it away, Harper carried it back with him, first to Christchurch and then half-way across the world to the United Kingdom where it remained in the family until the present day.
The account of how Harper acquired this item acts not only as a guarantor of authenticity, but the story of its source and journey is as fascinating and intriguing as the item itself.