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A Look Into the Life of One of Hawai‘i’s Best-Known Art Collectors: Michael Horikawa

We visited the home of Michael Horikawa, whose art collection comprises 150 paintings, 120 ‘umeke (calabashes), about 200 figurines and a cabinet of items related to the Hawaiian monarchy, including a necklace that belonged to Queen Lili‘uokalani.


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Editor Note’s: Through our partnership with the Honolulu Museum of Art, HONOLULU Magazine publishes a monthly blog written by Lesa Griffith, the museum’s communications director and a talented Hawaii writer on arts, culture and food.

 

 

Michael Horikawa is one of the Islands’ best-known collectors of the art of Hawai‘i, and some of his biggest acquisitions started with him thumbing through old Paradise of the Pacific magazines that he collected as source material. “I was looking at all these photographs of paintings,” he says, “and wondering where are these things?”

 

Today his collection comprises 150 paintings, 120 ‘umeke (calabashes), about 200 figurines and a cabinet of items related to the Hawaiian monarchy, such as a necklace that belonged to Queen Lili‘uokalani.

 

As Horikawa walks through his East O‘ahu home, he can rattle off a detailed provenance of the artwork on the walls, along with fascinating stories about how he obtained them. He has been buying Hawai‘i art since the 1970s, when he was just starting out as a young photographer in Honolulu, and the depth of his knowledge of everything from rare koa furniture to Lionel Walden paintings is mind-boggling. And 16 works from his collection are now on view in the Honolulu Museum of Art’s exhibition Art Deco Hawai‘i. In fact, Horikawa was exhibition curator Theresa Papanikolas’s well-connected collaborator in assembling the popular exhibition.

 

 

He and his wife, Linda, live steeped in art. Their bedroom alone—which they jokingly call the Volcano Room—rivals the museum’s Volcano School installation. He points to a Jules Tavernier painting of a volcano and says, “Sam Cooke says it’s the best, and he may be right.” For those who don’t know, Cooke is also part of a small circle of deep collectors of the art of Hawai‘i and also happens to be the great-grandson of Anna Rice Cooke, the founder of the Honolulu Museum of Art. Horikawa and Cooke are also both museum trustees, and, along with fellow collectors and trustees Watters O. Martin Jr., and Charles Wichman, their art insight is invaluable.

 

In the living room, a television, even though it has a mammoth screen, can’t begin to compete with the artwork. Horikawa stops in front of a large seascape. “This is one of my newest paintings I was able to get at auction in New York,” he says. It’s a Lionel Walden. And not just any Lionel Walden.

 

Horikawa is known in Hawai‘i art-collecting circles for paying top dollar to get the best. When Horikawa successfully bid for the Walden—and two others—on June 18 at Christie’s “An American Dynasty: The Clark Family Treasures Sale,” the auction house tweeted: “Huguette Clark’s auction sets new #worldauctionrecord for Lionel Walden with ‘Hawaiian Coast’…#Mahalo.”

 

But for Horikawa, it’s not about setting records or indiscriminately acquiring stuff. He has a relationship with each one of his 150 paintings, right down to the small still life by an early 20th-century, bored housewife who took art classes. He talks knowingly about Walden’s background and about the painting’s owner. The eccentric Huguette Clark, who died at 103, chose to live in New York hospitals surrounded by her collection of French dolls for the last 20 years of her life. She was the daughter of a Montana gold miner turned copper tycoon and senator. Horikawa explains that Clark bought the Walden paintings from a Madison Avenue gallery for her grand Santa Barbara estate—which she didn’t visit for more than 50 years, even though it was fully staffed and at the ready. Despite the fascinating backstory, what makes the painting most meaningful to Horikawa is the subject: “It’s one of my favorite scenes,” he says. “It’s looking east toward Koko Head and Portlock. It is almost the same view that you could see from my mother’s house, and I’ve been trying to get that view for 30 years. Everyone who collects wants to buy a scene of where he lived or where he lives.”

 

A born collector, Horikawa didn’t start off pursuing six-figure paintings. He began buying (and trading) as a kid, “you know, baseball cards, comic books, stamps and coins,” he says. But he pinpoints his serious foray into acquiring art to a day when he was 19, living in an unfurnished apartment, and a woman took him under her wing.

 

“I knew she liked the old stuff, so I went to this antique shop that was where Ward Warehouse is today. I walked in and thought, ‘This is really neat.’ And I ended up buying her a gold French frame. That started it. I started out with whatever attracted my eye. Then I focused on turn-of-the-century American oak, then I realized you can go to garage sales and buy a Singer sewing machine for 15 bucks and refinish it and sell it for $75. From there I started buying classical American, Chippendale, Sheraton, Regency—that whole phase—in the early 1970s. Then from there I went to Art Nouveau and Art Deco.”

 

At a time when earning $1,000 as a fledgling photographer “just shooting models and stuff” was a good month for him (and rent was just $200), Horikawa discovered what would become his collecting passion for the rest of his life. In 1973, he walked into the Waikīkī antique shop of Arnie Coward.

 

As Horikawa entertainingly tells it: “I said to Arnie, ‘These Art Deco bronzes are kind of cool, how much are they?’ He said $200. And there was a large Italian painting of a woman, and I asked ‘How much is that?’ He said $200. There was a third thing—I can’t remember what it was—and I asked the price. He said $200. So I asked him, ‘OK, how much for all three?’ ‘Six hundred dollars.’ I looked at him and said, ‘Arnie, I can add.’ And I walked around the shop. This guy was a real character. As I was walking I could hear him say, ‘Five hundred dollars,’ in his Swiss accent. Then it was $400, then $300. I asked him, ‘That’s really your price Arnie? I don’t have my checkbook. I’ll come back tomorrow. ‘It won’t be here tomorrow, they will be sold,’ he told me, and I said, ‘Well, that’s the chance I take.’ I walked toward the door and I hear, ‘One hundred dollars.’ So then I’m sprinting to my car to get the checkbook. I walk back in and write him a check for $100, and he looks at me after all this and says, ‘So tell me, why you buying all this crap?’ I’m like, ‘What?’ He says, ‘You should be buying Hawaiian.’ Well, even then Hawaiian was expensive, and I knew it. I said ‘I can’t afford it.’ He said, ‘You just spent $100,’ and opened a drawer and pulled out a fishhook and goes, ‘One hundred dollars.’ Click.”

 

A few months after that a-ha moment, Horikawa visited Connie Pickett, then the grande dame of Hawai‘i antique dealers, at her Carriage House Antiques in Kilohana Square. Knowing how Horikawa’s tastes kept changing, she asked the tyro collector, “What are you into now?”

 

“I said, ‘Connie, I’m going to buy Hawaiian,’” remembers Horikawa. “And she looked at me and said, ‘You’re too late.’ Back in 1973, she was telling me that it was too late to buy Hawaiian because she remembers when it was nothing. I disregarded her and kept buying—and now I’ve been buying Hawaiian for 42 years.”

 

He’s carefully built his collection piece by piece, making many sacrifices to do it. “The Tavernier above the bed? When my rent was $300 I paid $5,000 for that. It took me one year to pay for that painting.”

 

As Horikawa’s fortunes as one of the island’s most sought-after photographers grew in the 1980s and ’90s—at one time he had almost every major account of note, from Duty Free to Hyatt to United Airlines—so did his art budget.

 

He has spent years pounding miles of pavement, poring through thousands of pages of catalogs and interacting with “colorful” people in pursuit of works. On view in Art Deco Hawai‘i is Horikawa’s Gene Pressler painting Surfer Girl, a striking Jazz Age portrait that he spent 20 years tracking. Horikawa spotted the painting in a vintage calendar and called the owner—the eccentric collector and art dealer Charles Martignette, who co-authored the book The Great American Pin-Up—to inquire about purchasing the work. Martignette said it would be $125,000 and Horikawa declined.

 

“A few years go by and he calls me and says, ‘I need some money,’ and he offered it for around $50,000,” recalls Horikawa. “I said no, thank you anyway. Then he calls me back and offers it for $35,000. I said I’d send him a check and he asked, ‘How do I know if the check’s any good?’ I said, ‘I’ll send you a cashier’s check.’ He said, ‘No, I can’t do it that way.’ He wanted me to fly to Florida and meet him in a parking lot with $35,000 in cash!” That’s when things got too weird for Horikawa and he bowed out. Martignette died in 2008, and his collection went up for auction in 2009. Horikawa wound up getting it for less than Martignette’s lowest offer.

 

When the museum (then the Honolulu Academy of Arts) published Encounters with Paradise: Views of Hawai‘i and Its People, 1778-1941 by David Forbes in 1992, Horikawa spotted more elusive paintings at spurred hunts. The book has gone on to become the bible for collectors of the art of Hawai‘i. A few years later Horikawa spearheaded the museum’s follow-up Finding Paradise: Island Art in Private Collections, which takes the art of Hawai‘i through to statehood. He also collects rare koa furniture and in 1983 published, with the Daughters of Hawai‘i, the book Hawaiian Furniture and Hawaii’s Cabinetmakers 1820-1940.

 

With Horikawa’s collection constantly evolving, opening a gallery was a natural extension of his art habit. In 2003, he established Michael Horikawa Fine Art. Open only three days a week, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., in a nondescript storefront in Mānoa Valley, “it was successful right off the bat,” says Horikawa. Business was “through the roof.” Then the global economy imploded in 2008, and sales for Hawai‘i art slumped.

 

After the lull, and recovering from health issues, Horikawa is reinvigorated to jump back into the art ring. He plans to reopen Mike Horikawa Fine Art in a new location in Nu‘uanu Square, at the corner of Nu‘uanu Avenue and Vineyard Boulevard, in February. And he has no intentions of slowing down on his own collection.

 

“I’ve reached [a] saturation point as far as wall space goes,” he says, “but … it won’t stop me from buying another painting. For me, collecting has never been about numbers. When a piece doesn’t work for me anymore, I sell it. Then when I buy a painting, it doesn’t mean it’s worth more or less than what I sold, I just like it. So people have said that what I put in my gallery is all seconds. It’s not true. I recently bought a painting for $300, I took a painting off my wall that’s worth $25,000, and I put the $300 painting up. I put the $25,000 painting in my gallery—if someone wants to buy it they can buy it.”

 

When asked what advice he would give a beginning collector interested in Hawai‘i art, he warns that the market is at a high, commanding unprecedented prices. But on the upside, locally there is no new blood going after the genre. And if a person does have a nest egg to spend in pursuit of a Walden or Hitchcock, “now it’s easy to get information. There was very little information available in my time. There was no Internet—I  couldn’t just punch a name into Google. Collecting meant flying to conventions and shows, searching and talking and networking to find stuff, and ordering catalogs. I used to fly to cities like San Francisco, Santa Fe and New York City and look in the Yellow Pages for antiques shops, catch a cab and beat the pavement until I found something.”

 

And he urges young collectors to “always buy what you like. Study first, then decide what you like. A lot of people today are buying mid-modern as an investment. In the back of their minds they’re wondering, ‘How much will this go up?’ I never did that. I buy because I like it. If it goes up, great, if it doesn’t, I still love seeing it on my wall.”

 

Lesa Griffith is director of communications at the Honolulu Museum of Art. Born in Honolulu, one of her early seminal art experiences was at the Honolulu Museum of Art, when on a field trip her high school art history teacher pointed out that the ermine cape in Whistler’s Portrait of Lady Meux was not just a cape—it was visual signage leading viewers’ eyes through the painting.
 

 

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