It was a gorgeous Upcountry day with a Christmassy snap in the air. A friend and I headed to upper Kula for an auction of the remains of the eclectic art collection of the late Higgins Maddigan.
Maddigan was one of those larger-than-life Maui characters, who came to Maui first in 1957, then returned in 1959 and never left. He could be a charmer and he could also be an antagonist. "People either loved him or they hated him," confided a friend.
Maddigan found the old Pioneer Inn dilapidated and boarded up, and got a lease. Then he charmed Amfac into giving him a 48-year lease on the Lahaina Marketplace property on the corner of Lahainaluna Road and Front Street and put in a treehouse restaurant like the famous one his friend Don Beach installed at the International Marketplace in Honolulu.
Maddigan totally embraced Hawaii, said his wife, Shelley, and his penchant for collecting art began early, often through buying from people who needed money. "He wanted to help people make their lives work." I met him once, a big guy with a florid face and an antique aloha shirt who carried himself like a celebrity.
Maddigan was a preferred buyer at Art Maui over the years, one of that select crew given a preview before the show opens and offered an opportunity to make purchases. He ended up with a collection in just about every medium, spanning the 18th to the 21st centuries.
I had hoped to view it in his home, custom-built as an art gallery, which he planned to will to local charities as a museum for their benefit. But the economy soured, and Maddigan's sudden death in 2006 put a stop to that. Said Shelley, "It's really broken my heart to break the collection up."
After the Wailea collectors had come and gone, what was left was inelegantly displayed under a white tent, devoid of context, on a large open lawn with a million-dollar view. Contemporary works by Al Lagunero, Isami Doi, Herb Kawainui Kane, Janos Kardos and Lowell Mapes were stacked all around.
But Maddigan was also deeply interested in Hawaiian history, and some of the things on view thrilled the historian in me, particularly the seven volumes of Capt. James Cook's three voyages, first and fourth editions with leather boards printed in London in 1773 and 1784.
Talk about original sources. Maddigan felt strongly that they should stay in Hawaii and outbid a prominent Mainland bookseller for them. He then commissioned a special hutch made by John Wittenburg from seven different hardwoods, fronted with an etched slate by Bill Christian depicting routes of the Great Explorers. It's a treasure. Opening bid: $50,000.
Not that the lackluster crowd sitting in the folding chairs that day was interested. Mark Glen had to coax every sale. A 19th-century iron and wood whaler's harpoon reeking with the raw strength of the open sea went for a mere $225.
Glen couldn't sell the Maori-style feather cape by Rocky Jensen or a touching Bruce Turnbull sculpture of a waterfowl, but a knife and a gold necklace were snapped up. The crowd lit up when Glen offered an Asian wooden sculpture of a goose, which sold for $200. Likewise, the four-headed beer dispenser, $400.
I came to life when two haole guys started bidding on items that years of hanging around archives told me were of real value. Mike Spalding paid $500 for a drawing by Paul Emmert of the British Consulate in the Sandwich Islands, dated Honolulu, 1860.
A blond guy got away with engravings after drawings by John Webber from Cook's third voyage that I instantly recognized as famous images of early Hawaii. He paid $1,000 for one depicting a Hawaiian chieftain wearing a feather helmet and cape, and $800 for a companion, a Hawaiian woman with feather lei.
The buyer turned out to be William King of lower Kula, a descendent of the Scottish sea captain James King, who became minister of the interior of the provisional government that overthrew Liliu'okalani. With his Hawaiian wife, King sired the illustrious King family from which Gov. Samuel Wilder King and Judge Sam King descended.
I had my eye on a Persian carpet and an engraving of Lahaina in the 1840s showing the Rev. Dwight Baldwin's Waine'e Church. In the end neither of these things came to me. But it was fun to dream on a high Kula day and admire the efforts of a man who cared so much about Hawaii.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.