Treasure hunt

by Sally Blundell / 16 April, 2011
“Is this the arse-end of colonialism?” asks a prominent New Zealand gallery director after precious artefacts gifted to a British museum ended up for sale in a London antique shop.
This is how it goes. A museum wanting to divest itself of gifted items will consult staff, contact donors, consider other registered museums and ensure any disposal is fully documented. This is laid out in Te Papa’s collection resource guide and the UK Museums Association’s Disposal Toolkit.

So, how did a bronze statuette of Canterbury founder John Robert Godley, donated by New Zealand to the Imperial Institute in London in 1939, end up in a Haymarket antique shop with a £35,000 price tag and no provenance? And how did a finely carved 19th-century Maori pare (lintel), once proudly on display in the same institute, find itself up for sale with a highly speculative history in an auction house in Auckland?

“It’s disappointing,” says Judith Hanratty, New Zealand-born chairwoman of the Commonwealth Institute (CI) and its successor organisation, the Commonwealth Education Trust (CET). “If you are given something to care for, you have to care for it, but if [a museum] wants to be released from that the process is clear. We’d like to be able to say these things have been disposed of and these things remain, but in the light of what’s been revealed just how much is there and how much is not there – who would know?”

Or as director of the Christchurch Art Gallery Jenny Harper responded to the initial lack of concern by the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, owner of the items in question, “is this the arse-end of colonialism?”

To understand the ignominious story of both works (and more to come) is to go back to 1893, to the opening of the Imperial Institute in South Kensington, an ambitious showcase aimed at supporting industrial and commercial development in the dominions and colonies. In the following years it became a repository for exotic plants, minerals, handcrafted objects, art, photographs, early films and royal presents from around the pink-shaded globe.

Despite a change in name and a distinctive new building, by the mid- 1960s the relevance of the Commonwealth Institute was fading.

“Britain was joining the Common Market,” recalls former Secretary-General of the Commonwealth Sir Don McKinnon. “Commonwealth countries were cut loose and the Institute really went off on its own direction.”

When the Foreign Office announced its withdrawal of funding in the early 1990s, the future looked grim. A few countries asked for their contributions to be returned; the remaining collection was put into storage. In 2003 the decision to sell the building, using surplus funds to establish a centre for Commonwealth education, was endorsed by Commonwealth Heads of Government.

But what to do with the collection? Requiring close to 13,000 square metres to display, it included 7235 ethnographic materials, 250 Royal Presents (belonging to the Royal Collection but housed at the institute), 200 fine artworks, 125 models and watercolours from the Imperial Institute, and a “handling” collection of some 4000 items – all gifts from citizens of the former British Empire and, later, Commonwealth.

“There was a genuine feeling that one should try to keep them in place as a collection,” says Hanratty, “to be preserved in a charitable context and interpreted, maintained and exhibited for the benefit of future generations.”

Half a dozen museums – including theVictoria and Albert and the Horniman – were invited to tender for the collection, but it was the fledgling Museum of Empire and Commonwealth Trust (MECT) that won the day.

It was a logical choice. In 2002 the charitable organisation had opened its British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in the capacious Brunel railway terminus in Bristol. It was the only museum to explore the history of the British Empire and Commonwealth (one of its charitable activities is to provide “a national forum for preserving, exploring and studying” the subject), and whereas other prospective bidders wanted to cherry-pick the best from the collection, it was happy to take the lot.

“One of the things that won the BECM the tender was that they agreed to keep [the collection] together,” says Commonwealth Education Trust consultant Andrew Baines. “And that it would be available for public viewing and educational purposes. Another was that in the event of disposals, they would oblige by museum regulations or recommended museum practice.” On the basis of such assurances, the collection was officially gifted to the MECT and, in early 2003, sent to its new home in Temple Meads, Bristol.

All seemed to be going according to plan until Harper walked into the CET offices and said, “Do you know anything about a statue of John Robert Godley sitting in the window of the dealer in the Royal Arcade?”

That was November 2009. A month earlier former London art dealer Michael Graham-Stewart had contacted Christchurch Art Gallery curator Ken Hall about the 96cm statuette displayed in the window of London antique dealer Douglas Barrett, a specialist in ethnographic artefacts. Would this not be a relevant purchase for the Christchurch Art Gallery, a smaller version of the Godley statue made by Thomas Woolner that stands – stood – in Christchurch’s now devastated Cathedral Square?

Hall was keen and some private funding was raised but provenance was a problem (not helped by the Scrabble-letter label spelling out the subject’s name in the shop window). He contacted Godley’s direct descendant Christopher Godley, art historian and Godley expert Mark Stocker and Victorian sculpture authority Benedict Read. Although the statuette was found to be “post-Woolner”, cuttings from various newspapers indicated it was the same work placed by “thriving and prosperous Canterbury” in the Imperial Institute.

Harper in the meantime had visited the London dealer. Barrett told her the Godley work was part of a “job lot” and that the attribution to Woolner was made in an “old family inventory”. The name of the vendor, he said, was not able to be disclosed.

Harper then wrote to BECM director Gareth Griffiths. Was the statuette part of the collection transferred to the museum in 2003? No reply.

A second letter was rewarded with a brief and ungrammatical response from Griffiths explaining the museum was closed pending its relocation to London and that “we do not have a record of the statuette”.

This was early 2010 and the gallery had withdrawn its interest in the work. But by now reports of other items on the market were beginning to emerge. A colleague of Harper’s mentioned his inability to track down a model pataka made by carver Jacob Heberley and presented to Edward VII on his coronation in 1902 by Premier Dick Seddon. According to Graham-Stewart, the Godley figure, the Heberley work (officially part of the Royal Collection) and an elaborately carved Maori poupou, identified as the “Buller panel”, gifted to the Imperial Institute in the 1890s, had been seen in Barrett’s shop or flat.

Enter Sir Neil Cossons, internationally renowned adviser on heritage and chairman of the BECM board of trustees. Cossons has long-standing connections with New Zealand and has been a frequent guest and adviser to Te Papa and the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

In October 2010 it was his understanding, as he informed Baines, that only duplicate books and display material from the low-value handling collection had been sold, and that the CI collection came with no lists or catalogues.

However, Katherine Prior, a freelance historian and museum consultant who worked at the BECM between 1997 and 2006, describes detailed catalogues, photographic albums and an electronic database. They were all “perfectly adequate”.

“I used [the catalogue] on nearly a daily basis. You can’t reinstall the collection without that.”

By now the Art and Antiques Unit of the Metropolitan Police was looking into the matter. The resulting report shows that, according to Barrett, Griffiths visited him in July 2009 to discuss the possibility of selling items from the museum. Barrett then viewed a “couple of hundred items” and agreed to take about 150 of them, including the statuette, pataka and panel. According to Barrett, Griffiths told him not to tell anyone about the provenance of the pieces. Barrett then produced copies of three receipts totalling £115,000 “for the purchase of items from the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum” – all signed by Griffiths.

Following Cosson’s assurance that BECM trustees knew of the sale of some “low-value items” and the receipt of £115,000, the police declared it a civil matter and stepped back (the statuette, panel and pataka were promptly returned to the BECM). It might have ended there had not Ken Hall noted an elaborately carved 19th-century pare coming up for auction at Dunbar Sloane in Auckland. He identified Lot 92 as the same work shown in photographs of the New Zealand display in the Commonwealth Institute.

Roger Fyfe, senior curator of anthropology at Canterbury Museum, describes it as a “very important piece of carving” dating from 1880 to 1890.

“Its ethnological and art historical importance, and the fact it resided with noble intent in the UK, makes what has happened sad and lamentable. If any of the three items [the pare, pataka and panel] had been in New Zealand, you would not be able to remove it from the country under the Protected Objects Act.”

Baines traced the journey of Lot 92 from the BECM to Barrett’s shop then, in December 2009, to auctioneers Moore Allen and Innocent of Norcote, near Cheltenham, from where it was sold to Rebecca Heuston of the private Sydney Museum of Primitive Art for £7600. Deciding it was not “totally what I expected”, Heuston sent it on to Dunbar Sloane auctioneers in Auckland, where it appeared with an uncorroborated provenance alluding to an estate in Norcote (well, yes, the auction house was in Norcote) and a certain Captain Chudley.

This history, says Heuston in Sydney, was given to her verbally.

In Auckland Dunbar Sloane snr explains that some 30,000 items go through the auction house every year.

“I only had the provenance the Sydney museum gave me. I have to believe what the vendors say.”


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