UK museum artefact scandal comes to a head

by Toby Manhire / 12 December, 2012
As the BBC investigates questions of misappropriated gifts, three affected NZ works at last arrive home.
Closed: the British Empire & Commonwealth Museum


Historic items, gifted or loaned to Britain’s former Commonwealth Institute, continue to wash up on the private antiquities market.

Last year the Listener reported that at least four items gifted by New Zealand to the former Imperial – then Commonwealth – Institute in England, including a statuette of Canterbury founder Robert Godley, had mysteriously appeared on the open market without provenance and without having gone through standard deaccessioning processes.

A recent investigation by BBC's Inside Out West programme, broadcast on BBC One on Monday, claims that a further 144 items from the collection, passed into the care of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum (BECM) in 2002, are now believed to be missing or sold without their owners' consent.

The BBC talked to Lord Caldecote, whose family had lent the institute a 19th-century maritime painting by Thomas Buttersworth. Caldecote told the programme he was shocked to discover the painting had been sold through Christie’s auctioneers to the Government of Madeira for £61,250 in 2008.

Although there is no evidence any of the works were sold for private gain, the sale of donated or loaned items without going through proper deaccessioning processes breaches international museum guidelines.

Former director Gareth Griffiths was fired by the BECM trust board in February 2011 for “abuse of his position as director and the unauthorised disposal of museum objects”, but in an interview with the BBC he questioned whether the museum trust had met its responsibilities.

Earlier this year, the BECM abandoned plans to move to London and transferred the bulk of its 50,000-strong collection into the hands of the Bristol City Council, which is in the process of conducting a full audit.

Three of the items identified in the Listener article – a model pataka, a Maori poupou and the Godley statuette – have been returned to the museum collection. The fourth, an elaborately carved 19th-century pare, was sold, first to a private “museum” in Sydney, then to a buyer in New Zealand. (See the follow-up article here.)

This week, in a culmination of months of negotiations by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, Te Papa and BECM trust chairman Sir Neil Cossons, it will be handed over to the Rotorua Museum Te Whare Taonga o Te Arawa.
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