21 Aug 2014

Call for auction house to return taonga

8:26 pm on 21 August 2014

A specialist in traditional Maori custom and the arts is demanding the return of scared taonga, or treasure, that have been put up for sale by the auction house Sotheby's.

030214. Photo Diego Opatowski / RNZ. Taonga Puoro

Two cultural specialists are calling for a return of sacred artifacts, which could include taonga puoro (above) or pou whakairo, to New Zealand. Photo: RNZ / Diego Opatowski

One item alone, a hard-carved wooden pou whakairo, is estimated to fetch up to $3.1 million.

Pouroto Ngaropo is a senior cultural strategic advisor to Te Runanga o Ngati Awa - the tribal council of the eastern Bay of Plenty tribe, Whakatane District Council and the Bay of Plenty Regional Council.

Mr Ngaropo said iwi should join together and put pressure on the government to ensure the taonga is repatriated.

"The government especially coming up to the current elections, there needs to be a lot of pressure particularly from iwi within the context of our Treaty settlements," Mr Ngaropo said.

"In the context of the government and the wider global implications that this has is that the government needs to make it consistent... Because it's really about preserving and protecting our taonga and not losing our heritage - that's what's really important."

The Ngati Awa man said it was important that treasures that represented the past were returned for the sake of the country's identity as a whole.

"These are the things that we need collectively as Maori and New Zealanders to take this position strongly together, get the government to lobby them, change the law so that any taonga that is overseas at any of the museums should be, sorry, must be returned back to us here in Aotearoa," Mr Ngaropo said.

"If we collectively work through this together then I think the heritage of our nation as New Zealanders here will be a strong one for our future."

He said the culture of Aotearoa must be protected rather than sold off.

"None of our heritage and the history in those taonga will ever be seen again, and actually will be lost to us... Those things are really, really precious, they're really important and they say: Tiakina te taonga, māna anō koe e tiaki e manaaki rawa - so, if we look after our taonga and our heritage and our culture, it will look after us."

Taonga sold for 'astronomical' prices

Associate Professor from Victoria University Associate Professor Peter Adds, of Te Atiawa, agreed they should be returned.

But Mr Adds said that was often hard to achieve on a practical level.

"In an ideal world I think they should be coming back to New Zealand, but the problem with it of course is that often these things are very expensive to buy back for our government," he said.

"The other thing that relates to that is that often museums overseas are not willing to repatriate these things in the way we would like them to because they often have very different ideas about ownership of cultural materials."

Mr Adds said private collectors buy the treasures and then on-sell them to make a profit.

He said, as with the taonga going under the hammer in Paris, the prices could be astronomical, making it harder for New Zealand to buy them back.

"The big problem with this stuff and valuing the artefacts and these taonga is that there's a thriving black market allegedly around the trade of these items... It's really that that inflates the prices way beyond what they may be actually worth."

He said not all museums had a 'moral compass' when it came to returning art or cultural items.

"Museums of course have got a vested interest in retaining their cultural property no matter how it was acquired... We do know that for some of the material that was acquired from New Zealand that some of that stuff was acquired illegally, and if not illegally sometimes immorally," he said.

"And even with that stuff they're often unwilling to repatriate that material."

A spokesperson for the Minister of Arts, Culture and Heritage said that New Zealand could not make laws that affected other jurisdictions, but it did have a repatriation programme that both the Ministry for Culture and Heritage and Te Papa worked on together, which has most recently resulted in the return of a number of toi moko.

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