Liliha, Wife of Bohki, a small early 19th century half-length portrait of a Hawaiian noblewoman sold for $180,000 ($212,400) at Richard Opfer.

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The Annual Egg Nog Auction at Richard Opfer (18% buyer’s premium) on December 14 included a sensational result.

A small early 19th century half-length portrait of a Hawaiian noblewoman raced away from its estimate of $500-1000 to hammer for $180,000.

A weakly written inscription to the stretcher, just legible as Liliha, Wife of Bohki, gives a good clue to its sitter. Kuini Liliha (c.1802-39) was a high chiefess who served as royal governor of Oahu from 1829-31 following the death of Boki (or Poki), a chieftain and trader in sandalwood.

Both were among the first nobles to convert to the suppressed Catholic church in the Sandwich Islands – the modern-day Hawaiian Islands – and were members of the entourage that accompanied King Kamehameha II and Queen Kamamalu on the 1824 diplomatic tour of the UK.

In London, where she was known as Madame Poke, she and her husband were painted by the portraitist John Hayter (1800-95) and sketched in the royal box at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane.

Tragically, she was one of the few to survive the trip. The entire Hawaiian delegation contracted measles and, with natives having no immunity to the disease, many members of the party (including the king and queen) died. Liliha returned home after securing an agreement under which Hawaii became a British protectorate.

Assuming the identity is correct, this 12 x 10in (20 x 25cm) portrait may well have been painted during the visit.

European emulation

Whereas John Hayter, the Painter-in-Ordinary to Queen Victoria, had chosen to depict Liliha as the half-naked ‘noble savage’ wearing only a drape and a lie hiho palaoa (the hair and ivory necklaces worn by Hawaii’s noble class), here she is shown wearing a European style satin dress of the type that became popular with 19th century Hawaiian elites.

Her silk headdress drips with pearls. To her right is a red velvet curtain, a common device in western portraiture, and to the left an imagined exotic landscape hinting at the sitter’s homeland,

Subject matter is everything in 19th century portraiture and, in the current market, this blend of an exotic female subject of historical renown is hard to beat.

The portrait came for sale in Timonium, Maryland from a local Baltimore area estate. Its condition left something to be desired. Relined, it may have been trimmed to fit the frame and had extensive craquelure. However, it would be much improved by clearing and conservation.

Georgian origin

The artist is a matter of speculation.

While it was catalogued as ‘in the manner of Charles Bird King’, the American best known for his portrayals of Native American leaders and tribesmen, it is more likely to have been painted by one of the portraitists working in George IV’s London in the decades before the advent of photography.

According to the auction house the picture sold to the New Oxford, Pennsylvania dealer Kelly Kinzle. He believes it may be another painting by John Hayter.

The French explorer Jacques Arago (1790-1855) drew some of the first images of native Hawaiians in Western art. Arago was the artist of the Freycinet round-the-world expedition that visited the Sandwich Islands in 1819.

He published his account including a series of engraved portraits in Promenade autour du monde pendant les années (1822).