By Julia Flynn Siler
HONOLULU — Abigail Kawananakoa has been on a decades-long treasure hunt — a bid to recover silverware, lamps, rare furniture and other assorted objects from her family’s former home.
Make that “palace.”
This 84-year-old is a princess — a descendant of the royal family that ruled the former nation of Hawaii more than a century ago, presiding from graceful Iolani Palace in downtown Honolulu.
But much of the 19th-century palace’s custom-made furniture, oil paintings and other treasures disappeared after January 1893, when a small band of businessmen overthrew the monarchy.
“We’d love the king’s bed back,” says Princess Abigail, the great grand-niece of Queen Kapiolani, who was married to the last King of Hawaii, David Kalakaua. His gilt-and-ebonized bed, made by the Boston-based A.H. Davenport Co., is one major item still missing. “We’ve had so many leads, and they’ve all been dead ends,” the princess says.
Built in 1882, Iolani Palace was richly furnished when it was the home of Hawaii’s last two monarchs. But by 1969, the creaky, termite-infested Italianate palace stood vacant. The Junior League of Honolulu helped found a nonprofit group called The Friends of Iolani Palace, which ended up running the palace as a museum. They tapped Princess Abigail’s mother, Liliuokalani Kawananakoa Morris, to be the Friends’ first president.
The groups commenced their recovery mission in the late 1960s. Working from a desk in the state archives, they spent several years scouring 19th-century newspapers for clues as to where the stuff might have gone missing. To compile a list of items, they used old palace photographs, household ledgers, furniture purchase orders, details from the last king’s probate and auction records.
Known as the “Register,” the list includes everything from the wines in the king’s cellar to sterling flatware. Pattie Black, the sole remaining acquisitions volunteer, continues to follow up tips of possible sightings on eBay.
The Palace also posts a “Most Wanted” list on its website.
“Occasionally, we spot something that did come from the palace,” says Mrs. Black, 86. “That’s a thrill.” She’s been following some missing items for decades.
Palace bounty has trickled in from some unlikely places. In 1987, a California couple bought a pretty porcelain plate for fifty cents at a community college swap meet in Huntington Beach, Calif. After seeing a television program about Iolani Palace, they realized the plate, with its royal insignia, had come from the palace’s French Pillivuyt china service. They donated it in 2007.
One chair from the palace’s Blue Room survived a tsunami in 1946, which swept it out of a Maui home and deposited it on a beach, where the owners recovered it and eventually donated it to the palace in 1976.
Another was more recently recovered through sheer social pressure. A group of Iowa eighth graders learned from their teacher that a small mahogany table in the palace actually belonged to the state of Iowa, which had received it as a gift from an Iowa resident and then lent it back to the Hawaiians. The kids, calling themselves the Give ‘Em Back their Table Committee, began a campaign in 1999 to persuade the Iowa government to permanently give the table back to the palace.
Iowa transferred legal ownership in 2000, and the table is now a permanent addition to King David Kalakaua’s library, according to the palace. The eighth graders created “a little bit of pressure through embarrassment,” explains David Cordes, the retired Iowa official who handled the details of the table’s transfer. “And they were absolutely right.”
Despite these successes, about half of the palace’s contents remain at large. It hopes to recover a white Venus di Milo plaster cast that once graced the king’s office as well as the last queen’s tiara, whose 150 diamonds were sold off and will probably never be recovered. The palace declines to estimate the value of the missing items.
Palace staffers and volunteers say that even today they know where a number of items are after spotting them in private homes. Some owners refuse to give stuff back, they say; others do so anonymously.
Then there’s the clutter factor. Some families have simply run out of room to store their Hawaiian treasures. Descendants of Theo H. Davies, a 19th-century British sugar baron, returned four large ceremonial bowls, known as calabashes, he’d bought at auction. They’d been displayed both in the family’s large home in Hampshire, England, and its home in Honolulu. Eventually, the family decided to donate them to the palace in 2006. “Nobody has a big enough house” to properly display them, says Joan Davies, the widow of Theo’s grandson.
Alice Guild, one of the founders of the Friends of Iolani Palace, recalls opening the front door of her Honolulu home in the mid-1970s and finding an 18-inch package wrapped in butcher’s paper and string on her doorstop. Inside was one of the long-missing wall escutcheons that someone had evidently pried off the palace. She thinks the donor left it anonymously because it was likely spoils from the overthrow.
“We never ask questions,” says Princess Abigail. “Let’s face it: [Donors’] relatives might have taken part in the looting.”
Princess Abigail herself has bought back some treasures. At a Sotheby’s auction in Switzerland in 1991, she placed the winning bid of 65,000 Swiss Francs (worth about $46,000 at the time) for a Knight’s Grand Cross of the Order of Kamehameha I, which she then gave to the palace. The seller: a mysterious man known only as “Monsieur J.P.L.”