From Frames to Fortune

For gallery owner Michael Horikawa, his treasures are anything but buried.

Michael Horikawa was born with an eye for color, proportion and detail that served him well in his career as a photographer, but it took him a while longer to find his true calling, as a curator and steward for the conservation of Hawaiian art.

Such noble pursuit had humble beginnings. As a collector, Horikawa started out like many boys, with the accessible stuff of childhood: baseball cards, stamps, coins and comic books, before graduating to psychedelic posters.

The one thing that marked him as more obsessive than the other boys was a comic book collection that by 1972 had swelled to more than 5,000 issues, including first editions of such classic titles as Iron Man, The Avengers, Fantastic Four, X-Men and The Amazing Spider-Man comics. So many that his mom forced him to get rid of them. He ended up selling them for 3-to-10 cents apiece. Nevermind that those comic books, in mint condition, have recently sold for as much as $50,000 to $100,000 each. Horikawa moved on and never looked back.

He started his photography career shooting models in the early 1970s and found himself a mentor who owned a modeling agency. At Christmas, he intended to thank her with a gift.

“I knew she liked old stuff, nostalgic things,” he says, so he headed for an antique shop

where Ward Warehouse stands today. There, he found a gold-leaf, French frame. “I ended up keeping it, so I could look at it. I didn’t give it to her for two years.”

He had caught the collecting bug and started frequenting garage sales and swap meets, learning there was value in repairing and reselling vintage Singer sewing machines. “I learned how to fix things. I was buying the sewing machines for $15 and reselling them for $75.”

He read constantly and talked to as many dealers as possible, going through a phase of snatching up classic American antiques and collectibles. But his treasures still had a random quality during this period of discovering who he was as a collector.

A turning point came when he walked into a shop owned by Arnie Coward. “He had a torture museum in Waikiki with an antique store on the side,” Horikawa shares.

Coward didn’t believe in the finite nature of price tags, so, in one of Horikawa’s first encounters with the eccentric Swiss collector, he asked for the prices of an Art Deco bronze, an Italian oil painting and a third item, and was told they were $200 each. It was more than he could afford, so he walked away, only to find Coward calling after him, “Five-hundred dollars,” then “Four-hundred dollars,” all the way down to “One-hundred dollars.”

Horikawa ran back to his car for his checkbook, but as he was paying, Coward asked him, “Why are you buying all this crap?”

“So I asked him what should I buy, and he said I should be buying Hawaiiana.”


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A rare, unsigned painting of "The Death of Cook," one of three in private hands, from the English School circa 1790.

“I told him I couldn’t afford it, so he started digging around and pulled out a Hawaiian fishhook. “One-hundred dollars,” he said. And Horikawa was hooked.

A few months later, he was talking to antique dealer Connie Pickett at her shop in Kilohana Square, and when he told her he had started to collect Hawaiiana, she told him, “Oh, you’re too late.”

It may have seemed that way because she had seen the market heat up after starting from nothing, but looking back at his 42 years of collecting everything from calabashes and poi pounders to monarchy artifacts, Horikawa says, “I got in at a good time, in 1973.”

Back then, he could pick up a landscape by D. Howard Hitchcock for $750. Today, Hitchcock’s paintings are easily equal to a house down payment. While his peers were spending their money on cars and girls, Horikawa said he was the rare 25-year-old “willing to spend $5,000 for a Jules Tavernier painting.”

At a time when he was making $1,000 a month, he said it took a year for him to pay for the volcano painting, his first important piece, but his collector’s habit only pushed him to work harder.

“The more money I made as a photographer, the more I could set my own hours, which gave me more free time to visit all the antique shops to see what was new.”

He also put aside savings that allowed him to travel to antique shows across the United States.

“In the days before eBay, the only way to find stuff was to physically go out and look for them.” He laments that shows that once welcomed 2,500 vendors now are down to 250 vendors.

“I go to antiques shows and look at the people who attend, and there are very few in their 20s, 30s or 40s. Young people aren’t interested in collecting. They’re too preoccupied with their laptops and phones.”

Horikawa stopped working as a commercial photographer to focus his attention on running his own gallery, Michael Horikawa Fine Art, which he opened in Manoa in 2003. He’s now in the process of moving his gallery to NuÊ»uanu, which will increase his footprint from 700 to 1,200 square feet.

His collection of oil paintings now numbers about 150, representing a who’s who of HawaiÊ»i’s Volcano School, including Hitchcock and Tavernier, to one of his most recent, and prized, acquisitions, a large seascape by Lionel Walden that he purchased via auction in New York.

The painting had been purchased by mining and railroad heiress Huguette Clark, who kept it at her Santa Barbara estate, which she kept fully staffed, but never visited. Clark died in 2011, and her collections made the news when it was reported that a valuable pastel, “Danseuse Faisant des Pointes (Dancer Making Pointes),” by Edgar Degas was stolen from her Fifth Avenue apartment.

It wasn’t drama or provenance that drew Horikawa to the work, but its subject matter—a view of the ocean looking east toward Koko Head and Portlock. It is a view that he grew up seeing from his mother’s house, and he says, “I’ve been trying to get that view for 30 years.”

As Horikawa’s renown grew, he was sought for his expertise and serves as a Honolulu Museum of Art trustee. He recently helped to curate the museum’s Art Deco HawaiÊ»i showcase that closed in January. The exhibition included 16 works from his collection.

He also has served as a consultant for the Bishop Museum and Punahou School.

“Ninety-percent of the work I do is gratis. I just want to help, because I learned very early that I could find a painting for $50, spend 20 hours refurbishing it and getting it reframed for $300, and suddenly it’s worth $1,000. But more importantly, I’ve saved the painting from oblivion, and that was my reward. I’ve probably saved hundreds of paintings.”

For the sake of his collections, he’s been willing to live simply. “I wear shorts, T-shirts and tennis shoes almost every day. I’ve been stopped on my way to museum board meetings because the security guards tell me, ‘You don’t look like a trustee.'”

He advises aspiring collectors, “Don’t get hung up on values. Buy what you like because you want it in your life, and if the price goes up, that’s extra.”

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