National News

Marc Benioff pays millions to return rare Hawaiian relic to the islands

Posted May 25, 2018 5:44 p.m. EDT

SAN FRANCISCO -- A 200-year-old carving of the war god Ku has returned home to Hawaii after spending untold years abroad and in the hands of private collectors.

Salesforce chief executive Marc Benioff, and his wife Lynne, purchased the rare piece at a November Christie's auction in Paris, paying more than $7 million for the figure, which is less than two feet tall.

The San Francisco couple then donated the piece to the Bishop Museum in Honolulu, which announced the acquisition this week.

``We felt strongly that this ki'i (Hawaiian for image) belonged in Hawaii for the education and benefit of its people,'' Marc Benioff said.

The carving, made sometime between 1780 and 1819, had been in the collection of Claude Verite, a Paris-based art dealer, who apparently acquired it in 1940. It's unclear where the carving was before that.

Similar pieces are only found in museums, said Susan Kloman, head of African and Oceanic Art at Christie's, in a description of the piece prior to the auction. She described the carving as ``an incredible discovery.''

``When I first saw this figure I was astonished -- really speechless,'' she said. ``We couldn't imagine that such a work could still exist in a private collection.''

Benioff said he only learned of the piece a day before it went up for auction when Danny Akaka, Jr., Hawaiian cultural practitioner and Bishop Museum board member, called to ask for the billionaire's help.

The carving was likely part of a temple on the Big Island, where King Kamehameha I prayed to Ku to unify the Hawaiian islands, Benioff said. Missionaries presumably boxed it up along with other sacred Hawaiian relics and sent it to Europe.

It felt like a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to return something like this to its home, Benioff added.

``It was either going to go back into someone's living room for another 200 years,'' he said, ``or it was going to go back to Hawaii and be on display for the Hawaiian people.''

Benioff, who owns an estate in Hawaii, said he had to outbid a ``significant bidder,'' to get the item.

``It's a spiritual item,'' he said. ``It's not really something that should be held to help the power of one person.''

The carving was returned to the islands about a month ago -- the land-eater idol arriving about a week before the eruption of the Kilauea volcano -- the timing of which was not lost on Benioff.

The Salesforce founder has long had a connection to Hawaii. While an executive at Oracle, he decided to take a sabbatical and rented a beach hut on the big island of Hawaii.

He swam with dolphins and ``embraced the spirit of Aloha,'' according to Saleforce.com's online information.

The billionaire signs his emails, ``Aloha, Marc,'' and likes wearing Hawaiian shirts. His company incorporates the aloha spirit -- a belief in treating others with love and respect that translates into a corporate mission that includes spending 1 percent of Salesforce's profit on philanthropic endeavors.

The company's corporate conference rooms have names like Maka Launa or Hala Kahiki, and the top floors, including the one on San Francisco's new Salesforce tower, is call the Ohana, or family, floor.

In addition to the donation of art, Benioff has also committed to funding 100 percent of the Red Cross's emergency relief efforts related to volcanic eruption on the Big Island.

But the billionaire businessman does not typically buy art. This was a departure from his philanthropic endeavors.

But it was ``a big deal,'' he said. ``This is a very, very big deal.''

The ki'i is 20 inches tall and stands in a warrior pose. It is in the ``Kona style,'' made by carvers in that area of the largest of the Hawaiian islands during the reign of Kamehameha I, according to the Bishop Museum.

``Over the years, many of Hawaii's cultural treasures have resided outside of Hawaii. Some have returned home, others not yet,'' Akaka said in a statement this week. ``Today we can celebrate the arrival of this ki'i to Hawaii and to the Bishop Museum where it will serve as a symbol of great cultural pride as well as a reflection of Hawaii's spiritual past.''

The museum plans to make the carving a centerpiece in a new exhibition opening in February.