Māori academic urges new owners of artefacts to "behave ethically"

By Kelvin McDonald
The "extremely rare" 19th-century toothpaste lid. (Photo/Kiwi Auctions)

In what are being described as "disgraceful" examples of cultural appropriation, a rare 19th-century toothpaste lid and a marble bottle, depicting images of rangatira, have sold for a combined value of close to $24,000 at auction in Wellington.

The "extremely rare" toothpaste pot lid, named "Māori chief" by the seller, reportedly fetched more than $21,000 at the Kiwi Auctions sale in Upper Hutt on Friday.  It was originally forecast to sell for $15,000.

In a media release, the auction house said it was "just one of two good examples known" and "features a highly detailed image of an unknown Māori chief used by an Auckland chemist, Stephen Gilbert, who was in business from 1883 to 1916." 

Kiwi Auctions says the toothpaste lid, measuring 90mm in diameter, was found at an old rubbish dump in Melbourne in 1995.

The marble soft drink bottle. (Photo/Kiwi Auctions)

The auction also featured the sale of a rare marble soft drink bottle, the auction house said is "embossed with a Māori chief head" and named in the trademark registration after Ngāti Hine rangatira Tāmati Wāka Nene.

The bottle was used by Native Mineral & Aerated Water, which was set up in Ponsonby in 1899, by merchant Sigvard Dannefaerd.   

It is reported to have sold for $2,200, after an original estimate of $1,000.

Māori academic Ella Henry told Te Ao the artefacts are clear examples of inappropriate use of Māori cultural property but says she remains hopeful that greater awareness can come from discussion of this issue.  

"They are very much an example of cultural appropriation but I'm heartened the community is having this conversation because it is one we need to have as a country." 

Henry says she would like to see the buyers of the artefacts do the right thing by Māori. 

"Because of the publicity, I'm hoping that the new owner [of the toothpaste lid] behaves ethically and donates the artefact as an example of cultural appropriation." 

In the case of the bottle, she is more pointed in what she considers should be done.

"The acts of cultural appropriation in the 19th century are disgraceful and the bottle should be bequeathed to the people of Ngāti Hine," she says.

Te Ao approached Kiwi Auctions about the buyers' plans for the artefacts and concerns the items are examples of cultural appropriation, however, the auction house said, "we have no comment on this issue".

Kiwi Auctions has not disclosed who bought the artefacts but auctioneer Warren Roberts told TVNZ's 1 News earlier that the new owner of the lid has "good purposes" for it.

Roberts said his auction house very rarely has artefacts with Māori imagery come through their doors.

Speaking to the state broadcaster, he said “Māori motifs and particularly portraits were very rarely used in European products. Very few manufacturers dared to probably use a Māori image.”

Henry agrees and says it's fortunate that the two 19th-century merchants were the exception rather than the rule.

"You're only talking about a couple of blokes from Auckland exploiting Māori identity and thankfully they were in the minority," she says.