Elijah Armitage (1781-1863) was a London Missionary Society member who travelled to the South Seas in 1821 to teach the spinning and weaving of cotton – and the Christian message – to the islanders of Tahiti.
He was there for 14 years but ultimately deemed his efforts a failure.
A textile factory he built on the Marquesas in 1824 was ransacked by locals, while, in a letter to the society penned in 1832, Armitage concluded that the islanders “will not be disposed to labour much for [the cloth]… they do not think of making more until they are again in want so that I have always had more new spinners than old ones”.
However, like many of his kind, Armitage did succeed in building up an extensive collection of artefacts from the local tribespeople.
His diary records various transactions where examples of the local wood-carving culture were acquired in exchange for Western goods. The collection returned to the UK when Armitage was recalled in 1835 and much has been handed down through various branches of his family in the intervening years.
Head clubs such as this – an indicator of warrior status that was used as both a ceremonial staff and as a lethal weapon – have a history stretching back several thousand years across Polynesia.
They were a great inspiration for ‘modern’ Western artists including Paul Gaugin, who spent his final years on the Marquesas. “The basis of this art is the human body or face… always the same thing and yet never the same thing,” he remarked.
European, American and Australian bidders competed for this club via a bank of phones – those in the room and online having dropped out at around £30,000.
At the sale on September 19, it eventually sold to an Australian buyer at a sum that, with the addition of 25% buyer’s premium, was just shy of £90,000. The estimate was £10,000-20,000.
Will Hobbs, head of tribal art at W&W, said: “We’re finding in general that the market for Polynesian art is on the rise.
“While prices for clubs of this type can range quite widely, often depending on the quality of the carving and the age, the provenance of this lot really appealed to collectors.”