By Deidre Brown
As I discovered recently, its one thing to be knowledgeable about the repatriation of indigenous cultural heritage, but quite another to be participating in action to repatriate one’s own cultural heritage.
In March last year I worked with my relative and Ngati Torehina kaumatua (elder) Hugh Rihari to help realise the repatriation of a medal belonging to my ancestor Te Pahi (?-1810). The medal was struck in Sydney, Australia, to commemorate the 1805-6 visit of Te Pahi to the Governor of New South Wales, Philip Gidley King, and was formally presented to him just before the chief returned to the Bay of Islands. Its award acknowledged Te Pahi’s role in servicing visiting ships from Port Jackson (Sydney) with provisions and timber, and the Crown’s recognition of his position as a Ngapuhi tribal leader within a Maori nation. Its surprise reappearance in March 2014 at Sotheby’s Sydney, after more than two centuries of being lost to Ngati Rua and Ngati Torehina (the contemporary subtribes associated with Te Pahi), led to three distinct initiatives to repatriate the medal in the few weeks we had before the Sydney auction: tribally-endorsed institutional purchase, legal action and direct action.
Hugh and I agreed that the medal had to return. It was a taonga (treasure) of subtribal and national importance and could tell a story about a promising bi-national relationship that was destroyed in 1810 when Te Pahi’s village was attacked by European sailors after he was erroneously blamed for the 1809 attack on the ship Boyd. Te Pahi died from injuries received during the attack and the many European gifts he received, as well as other taonga Maori (Maori-made treasures) in the village, were looted by the marauding crew and on-traded. We suspect that this was the fate of the medal too. According to the auction catalogue, the medal had been in the possession of one Australian family since at least 1899. The high estimated price guide of $AUS300,000 to $500,000, due to the medal being an early example of Australian silversmithing, put subtribal or tribal purchase out of the question. Instead, Hugh and I approached the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa with a request to consider the medal’s purchase for the National Collection. The Museum is a pioneering leader in indigenous collection management and presentation.
While the Museum independently investigated the medal’s provenance and cultural significance, a large Sydney law firm, Henry Davis York, also offered its services pro-bono to the descendants to initiate a formal discussion with Sotheby’s. A request by the lawyers for descendants to meet with the vendors and discuss the future of the medal was declined by Sotheby’s. A consequential case to seek an injunction of sale at the New South Wales Supreme Court, on the grounds that the medal was stolen, did not proceed due to plaintiffs being unable to deposit the costs, estimated by Sotheby’s to exceed the estimated price of the medal. In New South Wales, the plaintiff has to prove they can afford to lose before they attempt to win a civil court case. When the case was dropped on the day of the auction, Te Runanga o Ngapuhi and Ngati Torehina put their full support behind the museum bid, which was by then a joint initiative between Te Papa and the Auckland War Memorial Museum - the first time the museums had collaborated for such a purpose.
Direct action was undertaken by Nga Uri o Rahiri, an organisation of Ngapuhi living in Sydney, who were incensed by the prospect of the medal’s auction. Around 20% of Maori live in Australia today and Te Pahi is regarded as an important foundational figure for Maori Australians. The night before the auction Nga Uri o Rahiri performed a haka (war dance) outside Sotheby’s, their protest widely reported in Australian newspapers and New Zealand print and television media. They also entered Sotheby’s on the night of the auction, their leader Kiri Barber delivering a karakia (Maori prayer/incantation) as the medal’s lot was presented, after which he was escorted with other Maori out of Sotheby’s by its security guards. Only two bids were made. We don’t know who the first bidder was, but the next successful one was the joint Te Papa-Auckland Museum bid at the reserve price! The medal returned in late November, taken by the museums directly to Te Pahi’s former estate for an emotional welcome by its descendants, who then travelled to Auckland Museum to endorse our shared kaitiaki (guardianship) arrangement with the museums. We do not have our own museum yet, but want to share our stories about Te Pahi through these institutions.
These actions might sound organised, perhaps even orchestrated, but in reality they arose from opportunities and networks that serendipitously presented themselves at the time, with each one waxing and waning in its potential to succeed on a daily basis. Indeed, the horse to back in the morning was often a different one to the one to back by the evening. And with the time difference to Australia these were very often evenings that extended into the small hours of the morning, comprised of long distance phone calls and close investigations of historical accounts. If I were to offer any advice or information to another indigenous group faced with a similar auction it would be this:
- Be aware that public institutions are wary about purchasing cultural treasures at auction, even with your endorsement, if they may be stolen. Apart from the moral issues, purchasing stolen goods may expose the institution to future legal action.
- There is divided opinion about highlighting in the media the injustice of auctioning cultural treasures with dubious acquisition histories. Sometimes this can enhance the perceived “value” of the item by collectors and lift the price beyond the reach of indigenous groups and public institutions. However, not speaking out does not send a message back to auction houses that they need to demonstrate their due diligence by presenting solid acquisition histories.
- That said, if an auction house approaches you to “assist” in the identification of one of your cultural treasures, you words may be used to elevate the commercial value of the item as you are endorsing the sale and adding to the narratives that make it more collectable.
- Approach the vendors if you can find out who they are, or can find a way to communicate with them via the media or a third party. They may change their minds if they know your story.
- Potential private purchasers for “high ($) value” taonga are more likely to be an investment company with a vault rather than the archetypal wealthy individual wanting to enhance their interior decorating with a piece of your heritage.
- Court action is costly and it can be difficult to express basic cultural histories and values in another country.
- The general public largely get our issues because they can relate cultural theft to personal theft.
- If all else fails, get your best war dance on and call to your ancestors for help. It worked for us.
Photo (top): Hugh and Deidre at Auckland Museum; (middle): Herb Rihari, Linnae Pohatu (Auckland Museum), Deidre Brown, and Hugh Rihari at Papuke with Te Pahi medal, 29 November 2014; (bottom) Te Pahi medal on korowai. All photos courtesy Deidre Brown, used with permission.
Deidre Brown is Senior Lecturer in the School of Architecture and Planning at the University of Auckland (New Zealand) and an IPinCH Associate.