Home Artifacts Hawaii’s Iolani Palace searches for lost royal artifacts

Hawaii’s Iolani Palace searches for lost royal artifacts

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They were found strewn across Hawaii, New Jersey, California, England and the rest of the world: belongings of the Iolani Palace from when Hawaiian royalty ruled its own islands.

Although Queen Liliuokalani was able to take her own personal effects, dishes, glass, china, statues, stationery, military paraphernalia, carpets, paintings and furniture, such as chairs, beds, dressers, and armoires, belonging to the Hawaiian Kingdom, were auctioned off by the Provisional Government following the capture of the Hawaiian Kingdom.

“After the reversal, the government was slow to decide whether to sell or not. “What are we supposed to do with this thing?” Should we store it? Should we sell it? Iolani Palace historian Zita Cup Choy told SFGATE. “What was inconvenient to keep and use was sold.”

No longer a residence for the reigning kings and queens of Hawaii, the Iolani Palace was turned into executive offices by the new government, and it needed nothing but what was fit for the job. Everything else was sold at a series of public auctions over the next decade, where anyone could buy anything as long as they had the money to bid – that means it’s most likely went to wealthy residents and visitors.

The most sought-after objects in the Iolani Palace include a neo-Gothic hutch, a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo and a spelter statue.

Courtesy of State Archives of Hawaii/Iolani Palace

In the late 1970s, the Friends of Iolani Palace organized to preserve and restore the monument in order to share its story with the people of Hawaii. It was then that the organization realized that they had to find things to fill the palace.

“When we started doing tours, the only piece of furniture in the building was the throne room rug,” says Cup Choy. “Just the physical structure and empty rooms.” Guidebooks were left describing to visitors what was once in the chambers, rather than showing them.

They reached out to the community through newspapers and volunteers wrote letters to people they thought might have bid on items at auction. Not just at government auctions, says Cup Choy, but also at auctions by the royal families themselves.


“The distinction between personal items taken away by family members and government items kept or sold is an important distinction,” explains Cup Choy.

When King Kalakaua died, Queen Kapiolani gave and sold personal items. Upon his death, the artifacts were passed on to his nephews, whose family did the same upon their deaths. Queen Liliuokalani had ordered her administrators to sell some personal property after her death. The objects may have passed through the hands several times, and it is not known where things ended.

“They could be anywhere,” says Cup Choy.

Since beginning their search, Friends of the Iolani Palace have found antiques and royal furniture everywhere: an Oahu jail, private homes, for sale in Goodwill and the Iowa Governor’s mansion.

The blue room was used for small receptions.

The blue room was used for small receptions.

Dave Lopez/Iolani Palace

“There’s a Blue Room chair that we found by accident,” says Cup Choy. “Our curator and acquisitions committee had gone to look at other furniture…but they saw a chair that was from the Blue Room sitting in a garage and they asked the family, and they said they would reupholster it. They said, ‘No, no, no. Don’t reupholster it. Give it to us instead.’

In one of the biggest discoveries, Thomas Morgan of Los Altos, California donated 41 pieces of silver, china and glassware in 2009. Born in Honolulu, Morgan’s grandfather had been the one of the auctioneers involved, and the coins had been passed on to him. .

“I think it’s important to know that the artifacts have gone home, where they will be preserved for the future and better enjoyed by the many visitors to Iolani Palace,” Morgan said at the time. “I encourage others who have similar items in their possession, or know where such artifacts exist, to return them or notify Iolani Palace.”

Over the years the palace has been regularly refurbished and the docents have much more to show visitors as they describe the royal balls, celebrations and overthrow. But there are still missing pieces that they are tirelessly looking for.

Some, but not all, items will have identifying marks, such as monograms, emblems, seals, and coats of arms.

Some, but not all, items will have identifying marks, such as monograms, emblems, seals, and coats of arms.

Courtesy of Iolani Palace

“The dining room had two big chairs,” says Cup Choy. “We have the queen’s chair, we’re missing the king’s and it looks almost identical, maybe just a bit bigger. There were four bedrooms. We have three of the four beds; we don’t have the king bed.

Hats, swords, badges and military accessories are also still in private hands. The most sought-after items include a neo-Gothic hutch, a plaster cast of the Venus de Milo and a spelter statue.

“Photos of collectibles are the most valuable if someone wants to keep an eye on things,” says Cup Choy. Davenport furniture, for example, is best distinguished by its legs. Some, but not all, items will have identifying marks, such as monograms, emblems, seals, and coats of arms.

If there is no marking, the best way to judge is to look at the historical photos on the Iolani Palace website to already see the furniture and objects in the rooms.

The largest room in the palace, the Throne Room, held formal audiences and balls.  This is also where the trial of Queen Liliuokalani took place.

The largest room in the palace, the Throne Room, held formal audiences and balls. This is also where the trial of Queen Liliuokalani took place.

Dave Lopez/Iolani Palace

Cup Choy says the furniture is an integral part of the history of Iolani Palace. Visitors can get a clearer picture of the past and celebrate when the Kingdom of Hawaii ruled.

“It makes it easier to imagine the king meeting with visitors and the privy council,” Cup Choy explains, “writing letters in his library, perhaps using the bedroom to take a nap between meetings in the morning and a ball the evening. This puts the visitors in the place.