The Flesh Fork
On May 15, 2017, collectors were invited to bid on a piece of Fijian cultural heritage, offered for sale among other items in Sotheby’s New York’s “Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas” sale. Lot 49 was titled a “Flesh Fork” in the catalogue, along with a Catalogue Note that asserts that “Cannibal Fork,” the “popular name” associated with this type of piece, “owes a good deal to Victorian sensationalism and the European fascination with anthropophagy.” This name shift caught my eye, as did the seemingly remarkably self-aware tone of the note. At the time I saw it, this was the 23rd such item I had documented in 50 years of Sotheby’s or Christie’s sales (I’ve since recorded more). In nearly all prior sales these items were offered uncritically as “Cannibal Forks,”1For example, four items each titled “Fourchette de Cannibale” were offered for sale at Sotheby’s Paris in December 2005. with no acknowledgement of the titillating appeal that the “c-word” has for Europeans.
Could this shift in terminology and acknowledgment of European sensationalism signal that the art market was beginning to respond to mounting decolonizing sentiment in global popular culture? Was Sotheby’s moving away from promoting a racist caricature of Pacific culture as salaciously sexual, violent, and savage? Was this predominantly white market for the plundered cultural and sacred items of Indigenous culture changing?
Within the short note, which acknowledged that “few objects draw such macabre fascination as the flesh forks of Fiji…,” cannibalism is mentioned eight times. That’s seven more times than in the seemingly-less-progressive 22 prior sales. I can’t help but think that Lot 49 was being marketed to buyers who no longer could risk the social stigma of consuming gross exoticism, but to whom that exoticism still appeals. There may be quite a few of those sorts of buyers: the cannibal fork that isn’t a cannibal fork sold for US$16,250, well above what was paid in prior sales of that type of item and well above its estimated price of US$3,000–$6,000.
The market for the Pacific
This here harpooneer I have been tellin’ you of has just arrived from the south seas, where he bought up a lot of ‘balmed New Zealand heads (great curios, you know), and he’s sold all on ’em but one, and that one he’s trying to sell to-night, cause to-morrow’s Sunday, and it would not do to be sellin’ human heads about the streets when folks is goin’ to churches.2Herman Melville, Moby Dick (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1851), 20.
The contemporary market for cultural items from the Pacific has its origins in the so-called European “Voyages of Discovery” of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Shrouded in a rhetoric of scientific collection, the removal of cultural items from the region at this time was embedded in a larger agenda of territorial and commercial control that was punctuated by violence. In seeking objects of study and souvenirs of travel, as well as during the process of forced religious conversion and subjugation, Europeans removed everything from human remains to the objectified versions of living deities, bringing them home and then selling them.
The complete history of the commodification of the cultural heritage of the Pacific is outside the scope of this short piece, but art market interest in these items is intimately tied to European concepts of savagery, violence, and the grotesque. Pacific cultural items became a feature in collections and sales of so-called “Primitive Art,” alongside art from such diverse locations as Africa and ancient Latin America. The term “Primitive Art” is as racist as it sounds and is ultimately a white-created and white-maintained market category.3See, for example, Marianna Torgovnick’s Gone Primitive: Savage Intellects, Modern Lives (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1990) for a complete exploration of the white “obsessions, dears, and longings” that resulted in the development of the concept of “Primitive Art.”
Although exact statistics of the racial makeup of the market for Pacific cultural items is not available,4The art market is notoriously secretive. The exact identity of buyers and sellers of all forms of art, including Pacific art sold at public auction, is not normally disclosed. the “whiteness” of the market is never in question. All prominent dealers of these items are white; all prominent collectors of these items are white. For the most part, Pacific peoples only interact with the market to engage in protests of sales and to attempt to have their cultural items repatriated. By looking at the market, then, we can learn more about the desires of white buyers than about the cultures that created the items of desire.
Auction catalogues as marketing: Revealing the desires of white buyers
I came across Lot 49, the “Flesh Fork,” during a small project focused on documenting the narratives of colonial exoticization, dehumanization, violence, and control that are presented alongside cultural items from the Pacific in the global art market. These narratives are not provable facts, but rather undocumented tales that are said to be associated with the item in question. These narratives confirm a prevailing European view of the eighteenth and nineteenth century Pacific as a site of white heroism and adventure, and of Indigenous savagery and violence. They provide the context that a white buyer of Pacific cultural items in a white commercial space expects.
Although auction catalogues purposefully mimic the aesthetic qualities of a museum and the content style of an academic text, they are purely marketing material. Their form and content are designed to inspire buyers to buy. Thus, auction catalogues are perhaps more a window into the desires and needs of consumers than they are an accurate reflection of the items being sold. Photographs, notes, and narratives lure bidders and inflate prices; they are included for no other purpose. It stands to reason, then, if narratives of colonial exoticization and violence are present within auction catalogues, they are there because they are value enhancers.
Between 1970 and 2020, Sotheby’s and Christie’s offered thousands of items from Polynesia and Melanesia5New Guinea is included in this work. Australia is not. for sale and just over 600 of the catalogue entries for these items6This is not an exhaustive list: While most sales of Pacific items between 1970 and 2020 at these two auction houses were consulted, it is likely that the catalogues for a few sales were not in the corpus of archived catalogues that were available. There are almost certainly more lots that were presented with violence narratives than are reported here. included some form of narrative or subjective descriptor related to imperialism, conquest, violence, or exoticism. Within these narratives European ships and their crews were “heroic”; white people had adventures among violent, sexually charged “natives”; and intense “collection” of heritage items “preserved” dying races. They are all troubling European fantasies, within which there is no room for Indigenous experience.
Narrative 1: Colonial domination
One of a group of about 60 figures that were revealed by Dr. Jacques Viot from their secret burying place in Lake Sentani where they had been hidden by the local inhabitants to escape the missionaries.
—Christie’s London, Important Tribal Art, 1979
The plaque accompanying this plaque reads: “[…]When the Admiral asked him ‘But what will your sucessors say when they are told that you gave away that which had been handed down by your ancestors for you and your tribe to preserve?’ The chief replied at once: ‘When they are told it was given by Paora Tuhnere to a big Sea Chief sent out to us by our “Great Mother” the Queen they will say Paora Tuhnere did well.’”
—Christie’s London, Tribal Art, 1995
Narratives of this type focus on how the item for sale relates to the domination of Indigenous people by Europeans, often placing those Indigenous people in a supplicative or infantilized role. Missionaries often feature in these narratives, either by forcing Indigenous people to hide the item in question from destructive zeal or by convincing Indigenous people to destroy their own cultural items during conversion to Christianity. In the second construction, the market is then conceived of as saving these items from violent Indigenous hands. In the first construction, the problematic idea that an item that was so culturally significant that it was hidden from Europeans is now on an auction block is left unconsidered.
Narrative 2: “Native savagery”
Bearing a label: “This Tortoise-Shell-neck ornament was taken from the person of a Female Savage- one of the Admirals of Murray Island in Torres-Straits who murdr’d and devour’d… passengers and crew of the British…”
—Christie’s London, “Melanesian and Polynesian Art from the James Hooper Collection,” 1979
Collected by a relative of the present owner, family tradition has it that the present mace was used by the natives to kill a missionary and was thus seized from them.
—Sotheby’s London, “Primitive Works of Art,” 1980
A major component of the justification of colonialism and imperialism is the supposedly “civilizing” nature of European culture in the face of what was and still is portrayed as rampant “native savagery.” The English word “taboo” was appropriated from Polynesian words that mean “forbidden,” and the Pacific became the primary site of imagined violation of European social and cultural norms. This exoticized Pacific of the European imagination ranges from the ultra-sexualization of Indigenous women to the projection of extreme violence onto Indigenous men. Within the narratives in the catalogues, violence prevails, with cannibalism, head hunting, and the murder of Europeans being featured. It is worth noting that for decades, Indigenous human remains were sold in these auctions, both in the form of bones and in the form of human heads. The humanity of those people was completely denied within the auction catalogues. Instead, they are referred to as objects to be bought, sold, and collected and are described using words that are usually reserved for things, not people. For example, a human skull said to be from Latangi/New Ireland offered for sale at Sotheby’s London in 1987 is described as having a “fine overall patina”; patina being a term more traditionally used to describe the tarnishing of metal.
Narrative 3: White men in boats
Believed to have come into his possession from some member of Captain Cook’s expedition–Oct. 29, 1887.
—Christie’s London, Antiquities and Primitive Art, 1973
A large number of the pieces of bark cloth included are from Hawaii, and because of the date, it is unlikely that the pieces could have come from any other voyage than Cook’s.
—Sotheby’s London, Important Tribal Art, 1983
Given to Elizabeth Allen (Born 1808) who married the Pope Family of Liverpool, one of whose ships Captain Cook sailed in, and by family descent to the present owner.
—Sotheby’s London, Important Tribal Art, 1993
Many items for sale were recorded as having likely been collected by particular ship captains or just ships. This does the dual service of presumably implying authenticity, while also providing the buyer with a romanticized and idealized archetype of white voyages of discovery. Within this type of narrative, and indeed within the existing European idealized archetype, white men on boats are heroic, Polynesian men are senselessly and inhumanly violent, Polynesian women are generic and sexually available, and all actions taken by European are justified and even honorable. It is clear that the most appealing “white man on a boat,” at least to the market, is Captain James Cook. He represents the ideal European fantasy and thus the ideal marketing narrative: discovery, science, adventure, and a finale where he is hailed as a god and then killed.7The Cook story is much more complicated and nuanced than this; however, the market responds to the European idealized version. No less than 54 narratives mention Cook, almost all of them tenuously.
Narrative 4: “Buy the culture that white people destroyed”
This sculpture offers us a glimpse into the spiritual life of a primordial, autochthonous island culture, as it existed before the cataclysmic influence of Western contact.
—Sotheby’s New York, African, Oceanic, and Pre-Columbian Art, 2016
Devoid of the purpose for which they were made, the masks were sold to European settlers and travelers. The rapidity which with the traditional were abandoned en masse means that the small number of known masks are unquestionably old.
—Sotheby’s New York, Pacific Art from the Collection of Harry A. Franklin, 2019
The rarity of these splendid works may be explained by the fact that…after many of the large staff gods were cut into sections […] most of the lower ends were burnt, perhaps unacceptable for the eyes of those back in England. Little is known about the function and meaning of these works as their use disappeared with the introduction of Christianity more than 150 years ago.
—Sotheby’s London, Arts of Africa, Oceania & The Americas, 2002
Perhaps the most disturbing of the “violence as value enhancers” in these sales is a theme that appears to harness European destruction and domination toward assertions of authenticity and rarity. To paraphrase the message of these narratives: Because Europeans were so destructive to Indigenous Pacific culture, the item in question is now one of a kind, so buy now! The idea that an item so important, so rare, and so obviously displaced might belong in its original cultural context is absent. This represents continued profiteering from past acts of violence and domination, with those very acts of violence and domination creating the rarity and uniqueness that calls for a price increase.
A final fork
Ten days before I sat down to write this essay, Sotheby’s Paris held a sale called “La Polynésie Découverte,” or Polynesia Discovered … not discovered by Indigenous Polynesians,8Indigenous Polynesians did, to be clear, discover the islands of the Pacific. but by white Europeans who harvested it for cultural items and fantasy fuel. The overview of the sale states that the collection of these items “reflects an imagination nourished by dreams, daring and achievements,” but these are achievements that are steeped in a history of violence.
Lot 14 in the sale is presented as a “Bulutoko fork,” but it is the kind of Fijian item that was once a “Cannibal fork” and then a “Flesh fork.” Cannibalism is not mentioned at all in this catalogue entry, but neither is the European history of associating these items with uncontextualized assertions of Indigenous savagery. The item sold for €3,780, significantly less than the US$16,250 that the “Flesh fork” that opened this article, with its eight mentions of cannibalism. Without narratives of violence, perhaps these items lose their market appeal.
Exactly why Sotheby’s abandoned the violent value-enhancing terminology is difficult to say. Perhaps it represents a sincere market desire to move away from the projection of primitive savagery despite the potential for loss of profits. Perhaps Sotheby’s believes that overtly colonial and exoticizing language is no longer acceptable in our present social and political context. Perhaps this is just an outlier, and there will be a “Cannibal fork” in the house’s next auction. What this does not, and cannot, represent is decolonization because the market for cultural items from the Pacific is, at its core, colonial. A market whose supply of goods stems from past domination and whose customer base is “nourished by dreams” of violence will always be tied to that violence.
Banner photo: Ehsan Khakbaz H./Flickr.