HONOLULU — A foundation working to ensure a 94-year-old woman’s fortune goes to benefiting Native Hawaiian causes now wants to stop an auction of items belonging to the heiress some consider a princess.
Attorneys for the foundation are asking a judge to stop the auction until a conservator to handle Abigail Kawananakoa’s finances is named.
Her $215-million fortune has been tied up in a legal battle since 2017, when her longtime lawyer, Jim Wright, argued a stroke left her impaired. Kawananakoa said she’s fine and fired Wright. She then married her partner of 20 years, Veronica Gail Worth, who later took her last name.
A judge ruled in March that she needs a conservator because she’s unable to manage her property and business affairs. Another judge ruled month last month her conservatorship should be unlimited and set a hearing for July 21 to determine who that will be.
Some consider Kawananakoa a princess because she’s related to the family that ruled the islands before the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893.
She inherited her wealth as the great-granddaughter of James Campbell, an Irish businessman who made his fortune as a sugar plantation owner and one of Hawaii’s largest landowners.
In a petition filed in court last week, her foundation directors said it’s troubling some of the auction items appear culturally significant, including what looks like a kukui nut lamp used by Hawaiians before European contact that had a bid of $336 as of Tuesday. On Wednesday, the item was no longer listed and there was a message that read, “Several items were recently removed from the auction at the request of the Kawananakoa family.”
The foundation directors allege her wife is behind the auction, saying she has the “chutzpah to auction off Ms. Kawānanakoa’s ‘unique’ and culturally priceless belongings to any random stranger with a credit card.”
A lawyer for Kawananakoa’s wife didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment.
“These items are personal property from Ms. Kawananakoa’s Punaluu cottage, which she no longer visits,” her attorney, Bruce Voss, said in a statement. “All net proceeds from the sale will go into an account to help pay Ms. Kawananakoa’s personal expenses.”
Voss said Kawananakoa needs money to pay her expenses because Wright, her former lawyer and trustee, paid more than $3 million to his attorneys and $400,000 to the foundation’s attorneys.
“Miss Kawananakoa continues to be well funded and the money from the sale is small especially compared to the harm it will cause,” Wright said. “This sale is a cruel repudiation of her life’s work of recovering and protecting Hawaiian artifacts. It is not the first time a Hawaiian leader has been diminished. It needs to be the last.”
The auction is scheduled to close July 12.
“It is extremely troubling to find that an auction has been scheduled to sell items of her personal property prior to the appointment of her Conservator – this is what Hawaiians call hewa (‘wrong’),” Lilikalā Kame’eleihiwa, one of the foundation’s directors and a professor at the University of Hawaii’s Kamakakūokalani Center for Hawaiian Studies, said in a declaration to the petition. “Many of these items are on sale for a mere $10 each. Therefore, the pending auction should be stopped before these objects are lost forever to Ms.Kawānanakoa during her incapacity.”