Bidding war over Maori artefacts

This wahika, or Maori hand club, went for NZ$46,940 - more than $30,000 above its expected sale price.
This wahika, or Maori hand club, went for NZ$46,940 - more than $30,000 above its expected sale price.
The auction of a collection of rare Maori artefacts, owned by a concentration camp survivor and former art adviser to Pablo Picasso's family, has sparked a bidding war.

A Maori staff, hand club, and greenstone tiki fetched more than double their estimated price at Sotheby's in New York.

Jeff Hobbs, Oceanic art expert at Auckland auction house, Webb's, said the items were very popular with museums and private collectors, and the sale "shows just how strong the market is right now across the board for Oceanic and African art".

The items belonged to Jan Krugier, a Geneva-based art dealer and collector with an international reputation, who died in 2008.

Krugier, who survived internment at infamous concentration camp Bergen-Belsen, once reportedly turned down a $100 million offer for Picasso's Liebespaar (The Couple).

His personal collection, which includes Old Master drawings from Rembrandt to Tintoretto, are often on loan to exhibitions and museums throughout the world.

Krugier's Maori artefacts formed part of the sale on May 16 of African, Oceanic and Pre-Columbian Art Including Property from the Krugier and Lasansky Collections.

A Maori staff, collected in New Zealand between 1844 and 1847, sold for NZ$21,664, more than double its estimated price.

A wahika, or Maori hand club, went for NZ$46,940 - more than $30,000 above its expected sale price.

Collectors also entered a bidding war for an 8.5cm hei tiki, or ornamental pendant.

The tiki had an estimate of NZ$9243 to $13,865 but eventually the hammer came down at NZ$30,330.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage monitors auctions within New Zealand, but does not follow those held overseas.

It has no ability under legislation such as the Protected Objects Act 1975 to stop sales, or force repatriation of cultural heritage material sold at auction overseas.

A spokeswoman for Te Papa said it keeps an eye on market activity, but wouldn't comment on last month's Sotheby's sale.

Mr Hobbs said Te Papa paid close attention to actions, and important objects will be "hoovered up and brought back".

"A lot of this stuff was traded by whalers or collectors back in the day, and it's quite sad that there is nothing we can do about preventing sales abroad," Mr Hobbs said.

"But we are slowly getting there, and eventually, I think it will all come home -- it's just a matter of time."

Today (NZ time), another cache of taonga, including a whale bone hand club estimated to reach NZ$39,000, a wooden club, hei tiki, and wooden treasure box, are set to go under the hammer at Sotheby's in Paris along with Polynesian, Melanesian, and African pieces.

And tomorrow (NZ time), another hei tiki is expected to fetch more than NZ$22,000 at Christie's in Paris.

In 2008, a hei tiki fetched NZ$165,290 at Sotheby's New York.

Mr Hobbs said he was constantly searching for taonga and New Zealand heritage items overseas, in the hope of "bringing it home".

"It's very hard when you compete with the likes of Sotheby's and Christie's, but we have managed to bring a lot of stuff back into the country from the US, England, Australia," he said.

"And once they are in the country and sold, they can't leave. It's a great feeling bringing it home."

- By Kurt Bayer of APNZ

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