Denby Fawcett: An Auction House Planned To Sell A Piece Of Hawaii History — Until The State Laid Claim To It - Honolulu Civil Beat

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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.

Opinion article badgeAt the state of Hawaii’s urging, the auction house Bonhams has withdrawn from an auction to be held today in New York items related to the overthrow of the Hawaiian Monarchy including the royal standard that flew above Queen Liliuokalani’s Washington Place residence the day she was dethroned.

Bonhams, a London-based company, agreed to stop the sale of the queen’s personal flag and certain other items after the state Attorney General’s Office sent a notice earlier this month stating the items belong to Hawaii and as such should be returned to the archives.

State Archivist Adam Jansen said in an email: “Her Majesty’s Royal Standard is a visual representation of the sovereign used to announce her residence — not an object to be treated as a ‘war trophy’ to be taken under military action.”

Jansen said the flag — along with reports from Col. John Harris Soper, who led an army of volunteers in the overthrow, “are irreplaceable pieces of history that belong to the People of Hawaii, not any individual or institution that can deny access, sell at will, or charge fees to any Public wanting to research Soper and his activities.”

But the Oahu antiques dealer who owns the royal standard and other items submitted to Bonhams for auction says he is unwilling to give the materials to the state.

This royal standard flew over the residence of Queen Liliuokalani the day she was overthrown.
One of the queen’s royal standards like this one flew over the residence of Queen Liliuokalani the day she was overthrown. Courtesy: Hawaii State Archives

They are part of Soper’s larger collection. Soper was an Oahu businessman chosen by Sanford Dole to lead the overthrow of Hawaiiʻs monarchy Jan. 17, 1893. After the Hawaiian queen stepped down, Dole made Soper the commander-in-chief of the military forces of the provisional government of Hawaii. Soper later served as the top military leader in the Republic of Hawaii, and through the first decade of the Territory of Hawaii.

Jansen says Soper’s reports and letters contain information not found in any other records from the overthrow.

The owner of the Soper collection is Oahu antiques dealer and Japanese sword expert Robert Benson. In a phone call Friday, Benson said although Bonhams has withdrawn some of the Soper’s possessions from the sale, he will not relinquish them to the state.

He said he bought the collection seven years ago in San Francisco from descendants of Soper.

“The state cannot come along and say it owns the items. If they want them, they can buy them from me. The state has a lot more money than I do,” he said.

Col. John Harris Soper disarming Queen Liluokalani's household guard after the overthrow.
John Harris Soper disarming Queen Liluokalani’s household guard after the overthrow. Wikimedia Commons

Benson is a longtime dealer who once had antique shops at Eton Square in Waikiki and downtown. His great grandfather, Henry Benson, was a citizen of the Hawaiian Kingdom in the 1880s.

Benson said if he had anticipated the controversy, he never would have put the Soper collection up for public bid. “This has tainted the sale of the rest of items,” he said.

In 1982, Benson was convicted of attempted theft and criminal conspiracy for trying to purchase antique Japanese swords from two men who had stolen them from a Mott Smith Drive home. He was sentenced to 90 days in jail and ordered to pay a $5,000 fine.  His sentence was later reduced to 60 days with jail time to be served on weekends. In 1996, Gov. Ben Cayetano pardoned him.

The auction house still will sell other items in the collection, including a sword the provisional government awarded Soper for his service, his collection of medals and his portrait.

“It is our hope that they will find a home in a Hawaiian institution or a private collection and we have been working hard to that end,” said Catherine Williamson, director of fine books and manuscripts at Bonhams Los Angeles.

Hawaii Archivist Jansen said the state decided not to claim the rest of the collection because materials like the sword were personal items given to Soper as gifts in appreciation of his service, not documents and objects having to do with the business of the Hawaiian Kingdom or the state.

But some art and antiques specialists are upset that the state has failed to claim to the entire Soper collection.

“The collection is more important historically in its entirety. Why break it up? The documents feature Soper’s first-hand accounts of the overthrow and the days that followed. It is some of the most important material I have ever seen about the last days of the Hawaiian Kingdom,” says Mark Blackburn, a gallery owner and collector who’s been an art and antiques dealer in Honolulu for 27 years, specializing in Polynesian history.

“Imagine how Soperʻs personal items and his documents could be displayed to the public in a timeline in Iolani Palace to explain what happened in the overthrow,” he says.

Archivist Jansen said the state would have gladly bought the entire Soper collection if it had the money.

Soper was born in England. His family later moved to the United States, settling in different parts of the country, with Soper ending up in California before he sailed to Hawaii in 1877 to become manager of Pioneer Mill in Lahaina.

He was active in the sugar business on Maui and in Ookala, Hawaii when King David Kalakaua appointed him as his marshal on two different occasions.

Soper stepped down from serving the king to open a stationary business in downtown Honolulu that eventually became Hawaii News Company, Thrum’s when he merged his business interests with publisher Thomas Thrum.

He was drafted into public service again when Dole asked him to lead the military arm in the overthrow.

Queen Liliuokalani
Queen Liliuokalani Wikimedia Commons

In one of the letters in the collection, Soper openly blames Liliuokalani for her own overthrow because of what he portrays as her attempts “to obtain autocratic power under a new constitution which she had drawn up and demanded her ministers to approve and countersign.” Of course, the new constitution was in reality the queen’s last-ditch effort to regain the royal power her ministers had wrested from her.

Another interesting letter in the collection is Soperʻs plea to the provisional government to form a larger and more efficient militia to protect its interests. He writes that since the Hawaiian people will never “consent to the establishment of a large regular army, the inevitable conclusion is that in the advent of a war Uncle Sam must depend mainly on the organized militia and volunteers.” This prompted the founding of the National Guard of Hawaii. Soper became adjutant general and chief of staff.

He retired from the National Guard in 1907 with the rank of brigadier general. Soper died in his Kahala Beach home in 1944 at age 97.

The Attorney General’s Office did not answer calls and emails asking what it will do next to persuade antiques dealer Benson to turn over the Queen Liliuokalani’s royal standard and other historically valuable documents.


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About the Author

Denby Fawcett

Denby Fawcett is a longtime Hawaii television and newspaper journalist, who grew up in Honolulu. Her book, Secrets of Diamond Head: A History and Trail Guide is available on Amazon. Opinions are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Civil Beat's views.


Latest Comments (0)

The State did Benson a favor when the Governor pardoned him. You'd think he could repay the favor by relinquishing those items to the Archives.On another note, if the Territory of Hawaii could take Washington Place away from Liliuokalani's heirs, then the State can surely take these items away from him. There's precedent here.

Kakaako96814 · 1 month ago

Was the standard even stolen? Liliuokalani had the standard replaced with an American flag. I believe she records the event in her book? Maybe she gave it to Soper? Or he dug it out of the trash after she threw it away? Soper and Dole were loyal to the monarchy. The overthrow was complicated.

jfaycook · 1 month ago

This really highlights the injustices to the Hawaiian people. It's a documented account of the overthrow of the Hawaiian Nation, the seizure of property, and the guy expects money for it because the State has more money than him.

surferx808 · 1 month ago

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