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Webb’s describes the feather as ‘beautifully preserved, rare and highly coveted’ (Photo: Screenshot)
Webb’s describes the feather as ‘beautifully preserved, rare and highly coveted’ (Photo: Screenshot)

ĀteaMay 20, 2024

The murky past – and unknown future – of a huia feather set to sell to the highest bidder

Webb’s describes the feather as ‘beautifully preserved, rare and highly coveted’ (Photo: Screenshot)
Webb’s describes the feather as ‘beautifully preserved, rare and highly coveted’ (Photo: Screenshot)

A taonga going under the hammer at an Auckland auction house tonight is expected to fetch thousands. But concerns have been raised about its unclear provenance – and about the law that’s meant to protect it. Eda Tang reports.

When Tamatea* received the huia feather they bought from a licensed dealer, it arrived in a vape box. They were shocked. 

“Some might argue that a huia feather is tapu since it is part of an extinct bird, some may consider it noa given that it is traditionally an ornament. Either way, it does not belong in a vape box.” 

Tail feathers of the huia (kōtore huia), the now-extinct bird with glossy white-tipped black feathers and orange wattles, were worn by rangatira as a sign of rank and status. They became sought after by Pākehā too, and after the Duke of York (who later became King George V) was pictured wearing a huia feather in his hat on a visit to New Zealand in 1901, they became popular in Britain. The numbers of the species diminished with targeted hunting, and the last confirmed sighting of a huia in the wild was in 1907.

At the Webb’s auction house in Mount Eden, Auckland, a single, framed huia tail feather is held for its new custodian, attracting public attention and several media stories. It’s the centrepiece of the “Material Culture” auction, featuring alongside other Māori taonga including a taiaha adorned with kurī fur, as well as myriad cultural items from around the Pacific and the world. The live auction is this evening, Monday, May 20, and the huia feather is expected to attract a bid of between $2,000 and $3,000.

The huia feather being auctioned by Webb’s (Photo: Supplied)

A number of huia feathers have been sold at auction at Aotearoa and abroad in recent years, including one in Auckland in 2010 that fetched $8,400, making it at the time “the world’s most expensive feather”. In 2023, a pair of stuffed huia sold to a private collector for £220,000 at auction in the UK, despite calls for the New Zealand government to buy the huia and return them to New Zealand.

But what do we know about this feather? Not much, and nor do the auctioneers. It comes from a “private collection” and the feather is listed as Y-registered under the Protected Objects Act (1975). This means that only registered collectors can bid on the item and Manatū Taonga Ministry for Culture and Heritage should hold a permanent record of it. Only they don’t. The ministry says it’s still awaiting the paper copy from Te Papa. 

Mysteriously, the Y registration number on the listing on Thursday last week was Y16454, which changed to Y16462 by Friday. Caolán McAleer, head of marketing at Webb’s, said this was because the number on the tip of the feather “can be hard to read”. He couldn’t disclose the seller’s identity but said the item was given to Webb’s without documentation or proof of the Y-registration. “The huia feather has come from a private collection in Aotearoa. The vendor has had it for some time and decided it is time to let it go,” McAleer explained.

The original Y registration number on the feather has changed (Photo: Supplied)

James Parkinson, head of valuations in Māori and Oceanic art at competing auction house Dunbar Sloane, said the listing was subject to “considerable conjecture”.

“How can you market something in print and in the media, especially something that is culturally significant, without knowing all the facts? They clearly do not know all the facts about this huia feather. The Y registration number they have in print is wrong. This is also then very problematic for the person who buys this. They don’t really know what they are buying.”

McAleer said, “We believe the feather was first Y-registered in August/September in 2013 when it was offered in a previous auction.” He said it wasn’t uncommon for objects to come in without certificates as collectors misplace them, but Webb’s requests these ahead of the auction. “We do not release taonga until we are provided with a collector’s number.” 

A Y-registered object falls under the legal definition of taonga tūturu, referring to “found” and privately owned objects relating to Māori culture, history or society that are at least 50 years old. It doesn’t take much to be a registered collector taonga tūturu; you need residency and a place to store the items. It’s all here on this one-page form

A vape box was not the waka huia Tamatea expected their taonga to arrive in (Photo: Supplied)

Tamatea was surprised by how easy it was to register. “There is no need to prove your knowledge of conservation or understanding of te ao Māori.” While they were confident in their taha Māori, they felt “lacking in preservation knowledge”, so took it upon themselves to speak to staff at the local museum. “They were able to authenticate the taonga as a huia feather and offered very practical advice to preserve it: everything from ideal temperatures, to the storage and display materials, to the impacts of UV lights and insects.” 

Tamatea’s taonga is currently mounted on acid-free board, behind museum glass with UV protection and in a sealed frame displayed away from direct sunlight. They say the costs associated with preserving the taonga need to be considered before buying. “If the buyer does not intend on taking up the responsibility as a kaitiaki, then they should not bid on these taonga.

“The requirement for registered collectors is a good start, but I think this process needs to be more rigorous, [requiring] a particular level of understanding of conservation, preservation and te ao Māori.” This would make it more accessible for Māori to attain taonga too, as a way of expressing tino rangatiratanga, they added. Under the act, while permission is needed from Manatū Taonga before a taonga tūturu can be taken out of the country, a registered collector can gift or bequest the item to someone who is not registered. 

Aside from curiosity, the main reason for Tamatea’s bidding on the huia feather was to ensure it was being looked after appropriately. “I thought it, more likely than not, would end up in the hands of someone who probably didn’t understand the mana and significance it holds to Māori… its importance to te ao Māori and the roles some of these taonga had in our histories.” 

Other taonga tūturu in the Webb’s Material Culture auction (Photo: Screenshot)

Concerns over taonga being sold at auction are not new. A 2022 University of Otago MA thesis by Claire Louise Thorrold that researched practices of private collectors of taonga tūturu found that community-level work to encourage more Māori cultural understanding had not yet filtered through to “private collectors who are continuing their practices within their isolated world”. Government documents released to The Post last year revealed that a review of the Protected Objects Act was being considered after concerns were raised about its operation.

So what are traders’ responsibilities? Even though Tamatea’s feather came from one of the 14 licensed traders of taonga tūturu, it arrived in a vape box. Becoming a licensed trader is almost as straightforward as becoming a licensed collector, demanding only an added annual licensing fee of $57.50. It doesn’t require proof of an understanding of tikanga Māori, so the act doesn’t do anything to actively ensure the taonga are looked after. Helen McCracken, the ministry’s acting deputy secretary of Māori Crown partnerships, says the act “[monitors] the trade of privately owned taonga tūturu, registration of licensed dealers to trade… and registration of collectors.

“Registered collectors are welcome to contact the ministry or one of the authorised public museums to seek advice on the care of their taonga tūturu collections, including for tikanga Māori where appropriate,” added McCracken.

McAleer said Webb’s has “gone to lengths in order to train staff directly handling taonga about how to do so”. He explained how the auction house used the object’s indigenous names where possible, prohibited eating or drinking near taonga, stored taonga in a locked office, handled them carefully and, if taonga are depicted as figures, staff never lift them by the neck or face. “We take being the temporary kaitiaki of these taonga for the time they are in our care very seriously.

“Many of our bidders already have an understanding of tikanaga [sic] and we speak with them about this,” said McAleer.

*name changed

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