Arthur Palmer - Aboriginal, Oceanic & Tribal Art

Sunday, August 31, 2008

CHRISTIES COOK BOOMERANG Artifact with great return

Lot 33 A boomerang of New Holland Captain James Cook 1728-1779, in Christies upcoming auction (Sale 7652 Exploration & Travel Sept 25 2008) purports to have been collected on Lieutenant Cook’s first voyage. This, if so, is no doubt a wonderful thing.
Click here:
Without prejudice however, on viewing the item and also Lot 34; the two associated clubs with similar provenance, it would appear to be a wondrous happenstance. Perhaps even a hopeful and long bow to pull?
On balance the possibility and probability that any of these three artifacts were handled by Cook would seem to require an unsafe and uncritical leap of faith.
The Christie’s catalogue write up relies very heavily upon the interpretation of a number of specific terms used in statements from Bank’s journal of the 29th April 1770.
These interpretations are demonstrably and unfortunately naively erroneous. The passage of 200 years, not conspiracy, has misled novice modern readers to an incorrect conclusion that Banks is describing this or any other boomerang. He is most certainly not.
Banks description of short scymetar of two half feet and sword like wooded weapons is consistent with the traditional Aboriginal scymetar (scimitar) sword club from this area. The contemporary drawing by Parkinson, almost certainly of this Cook Banks encounter on the 29th.with two Aboriginal men, shows a version of this wooden sword club held in the right hand of the foremost figure. No boomerang.

This decorated scimitar club type was still made by old Aboriginal men at La Perouse up until the 1930s depression. Then aged in their 70s & 80s they would have been the great grand children of the men Banks encountered.
Aboriginal East Coast Scymetar Sword Clubs of the type described by Banks.
See: Edge-Partington Vol.1. p.352.No.1& 2. Sword Clubs SE Australian Heape Collection.
Top C 1900. Bottom C 1800. Ex Palmer Family Collection
Banks, & Cook, unlike most modern readers, was well acquainted with sword types and he described very accurately what he witnessed on the day. He was observing and recording a club type which to this day closely resembles the common Persian/Indian scimitar sword. He is not describing a returning boomerang. Banks also very precisely describes a shield, four pronged fish spears (lances) and a Woomera spear thrower, short stick handled as if was a machine to throw a lance (spear). The Woomera description is nothing short of inquiring Georgian scientific deduction at its most brilliant.
Likewise Banks uses the term crooked weapons to describe the shafts of these fish spears, not any boomerang. Fish spears shafts are usually quite knobbly and in the rough utilitarian items of material culture (see King & Blake fish spear drawings & scimitar club type. No boomerang). Crooked boomerangs are sticks – they don’t come back. Also no mention of throwing sticks of any kind?
Had Banks sighted a boomerang then his powers of observation and description would have left little doubt as to the crescent or chevron shape, conformation, form & perhaps an educated guess at function.
Were he to see it in flight, approaching flat end over end at rapid speed, soaring over and past Cook & Banks heads with a sound like a whistling kite, climbing up to gain height behind them and then returning for another pass before continuing on back to the thrower’s hands, then we could have expected a paper on the subject or a chapter in his book. He didn’t & there isn’t.
It has to be also noted that nowhere has Cook recorded collecting boomerangs or these clubs. Not much comfort there.
Banks was the first great Pacific ethnographic material culture collector (see Palmer OAS Magazine Vol. 12, issue 5, Dec 2007. ). Cook seemed to mainly collect continents and large Island chains. Cook and Banks had far greater opportunity to collect from local Aboriginal when the Endeavour was careened for seven weeks between 17th June & 04 August 1770 on the east coast of Cape York. Very little was collected in all this time, save natural history specimens & some Aboriginal vocabulary including the word Kangaroo, and in any case the artifacts in question are not from this region.
The Christies catalogue notes quite correctly that this boomerang (Lot 33) & the two clubs (Lot 34) were omitted from the 1886 John Mackrell exhibition of Cook artifacts. The enormity of such an over sight, if an oversight, is difficult if not impossible to explain. The irresistible conclusion is there was no contemporary oversight leading to omission.
Also two other boomerangs purportedly from the Banks collection, now in the Australian Museum, are not accepted by the Cook cataloguer Kaeppler as having unimpeachable provenance.
Lot 33 appears to be a reasonable & attractive early example of the common type of returning boomerang. It does not appear to have any significant mechanical use or abuse damage or display any vestige decoration.
Lot 34 appears to be two clubs from the Gippsland (smaller club) and Murray River region (larger club). This locates the source for these clubs some 800 kilometres from the Banks/Cook Endeavor encounter in 1770 at Sting Ray (Botany) Bay. Perhaps pre contact traditional trade movement may account for this. However both clubs arouse post contact suspicions. The large club is, for a pre contact traditional item of this type of weapon, overly & unusually decorated with bands around the shaft. The small club appears a clumsy post contact pedestrian version of type.
As they can’t be interrogated then the empirical analysis has to now be matched with the provenance. The most likely safe date for both clubs is C 1820s.
Where and when all three Aboriginal artefacts entered the chain of Cook/ Bennett family estate history may continue a mystery. There are certainly a number of ongoing family RN connections with Australia from 1788 on to account for early Aboriginal & Pacific artificial curiosities finding their way into either household. Cook & Banks remain, as are the items in question, very silent on the matter.
When the decimal point shifts two places to the right on a hint of Cook background then the gap may be one of credibility rather than of the cheque book. Sans Cook, Banks or any other notable association this artefact has a current market value around AUD$1,200.00.
The current top Christies estimate of AUD$ 120,000.00+ may require a little more hard evidence for hope to triumph over probability.
To err on the side of caution is always an option in this field.
Arthur B. Palmer AD Fine Arts (Qld) MRQAS
26th August 2006
Approved to value the following classes for the Australian Government’s Cultural Gifts Programme:
Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islander material culture and contemporary art, Arnhem Land barks (19thC to present), Hermannsburg watercolours (1930s to present), P
acific, African, Asian, American material culture, Australian Early and Modern Fine Art, International Aviation Art, Trench Art WWI & WWII.


  • The boomerang offered here by Christies would be very difficult to attribute to Capt Cook. He never described seeing a boomerang being used in any material that I have ever read. The items he describes as scymitars does not describe what a boomerang shape is like. The first recorded mention of a returning boomerang was much later than when Cook reached Australia. I have been collecting boomerangs for over 30 years and have been world champion boomerang thrower twice. If Cook had seen a boomerang he would definately have recorded seeing a crescent shape or half moon shape and he would have marvelled at its ability to return to the thrower. This appears nowhere in his journals. I would like to see more evidence before I would believe that this is Cooks boomerang. To me there seems tobe too big a gap in the appearance of the boomerang in England and the time it would have been collected. Cheers Rob Croll

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 17, 2008 2:56 PM  

  • Loved your article, so convincing and great tone, lightly sarcastic but not punishing! Great stuff. I was fascinated to learn about both Banks and Cook and what they were doing and how they recorded things. Your research pulls it all together very well, and it sounds like crazy to even consider that the boomerang ever had anything to do with Cook from your article!

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 17, 2008 4:10 PM  


    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 17, 2008 5:04 PM  

  • Excellent analysis - rational consideration of probability is vital in the absence of definitive proof - the absence of proof should alone be sufficient for a reputable auction house to moderate it's assertions and clearly note the confounders. For Christies it seems indeed that hype springs eternal.
    Mike Owen - Darwin NT

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 17, 2008 9:48 PM  

  • I would like to be a fly on the wall in the back rooms at Christies, with the buzz of all the extra talk about the up coming sale.
    Did or didn't Cook collect a boomerang at the time of his visit ?
    Will it be the million dollar question ?
    I feel that they didn't see any at that contact point in time with what I can find.
    But Regardless of this I'm sure more than 2 or bidders are willing to pay more that it's worth many times over.Great work Mr Palmer.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 22, 2008 6:06 AM  

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