Fairfax Media's plan to quietly ship "millions" of prints and negatives from the photographic archives of its assorted newspapers to Little Rock, Arkansas, starting next week, has hit a stumbling block - the Protected Objects Act.
Formerly the Antiquities Act, it requires anyone planning to export taonga, including collections of photographs more than 50 years old, to apply for a licence from the Ministry of Culture and Heritage.
Fairfax editor-in-chief Paul Thompson admits he was unaware of this and is seeking clarification from his legal team. David Butts, the manager of heritage operations at the ministry, says he first learned of Fairfax's plans from John Drinnan's report in last Friday's Herald. He says he will be drawing the provisions of the act to Fairfax's attention. "On the face of it, one would think they should make an application."
That gives the pre-1963 prints and negatives at least a reprieve. But what of the historic photos of the last half-century from the files of the Auckland Star, Evening Post, the Dominion, Nelson Mail, Sunday Star-Times, Sunday News and others? Should we be shipping this cultural heritage off to a commercial collector of photographic libraries in the United States for safe-keeping?
In recent years, Maori have conducted a major drive to repatriate the shrunken heads of their ancestors from museums and private collections in the US and Europe. It seems ironic that late last year, while they were recently commemorating the latest returned taonga, Australian-owned Fairfax was planning to send the images of New Zealand's - and Australia's - more recent ancestors off into foreign hands.
Mr Thompson says "we're not selling the images. We're retaining full copyright". The originals will be sent to the US for digitising and indexing, and a digital version of the whole library will be returned to New Zealand. He says the cost of doing that here would be prohibitive. Rogers Photo Archive will do it all for free, in return for ownership of the original prints and negatives and shared commercial rights to the images.
Mr Thompson also argues the deal will save the collection from further decay. "Like a lot of publishers, we haven't looked after this material as well as we should have. It's very expensive to do. They're sitting in boxes in various states of cataloguing ... we want all the images digitised so we can access them and also to make sure they're preserved because at present they're not really being looked after adequately."
Of course, the same case could have been made for exporting the shrunken heads to Europe, or taking the Elgin Marbles to London. However gruesome the history of the preserved heads, if they hadn't been exported into the hands of collectors overseas, few, if any, would have survived to argue over. But was it right?
The headline in a recent Arkansas Times profile declares 37-year-old John Rogers, the man who has obtained the vast New Zealand archive, as owning "more photos than anyone, anywhere". He started off with baseball cards 15 years ago, and the collection has just grown, including "the vast photo morgues of 11 great (and greatly cash-strapped) American newspapers, including the Chicago Sun-Times, the Denver Post, the Boston Herald and the Detroit News". He has 80 million images - not counting the incoming New Zealand additions.
The images are scanned by 120 staff in Little Rock and Memphis, then the labelling and photo tagging is added by 200-plus staff in Calcutta and Bangalore.
Rogers makes his money licensing images of celebrities, selling "stock photo" rights, and selling original prints online. The Arkansas Times says the Rogers archive is the biggest seller on eBay, with more than two million photos listed.
As an old newspaper hack, one of the delights of the job is to disappear into the bowels of the building to wade through the old clippings and picture files. You can turn the pictures over and see the often eccentric labelling on the back. See when they were last published.
I wish the Indian transcribers well in interpreting these notes, but like legendary photographer Peter Bush, am staggered that these originals are being packed off to a private collector in the United States.
Mr Thompson argues that "the value lies in the image itself, we're enhancing Kiwis' ability to access these images. At present, it would be pretty hard to find because they're not digitised ... so we're enhancing the heritage because it's going to be more available."
Even if you have complete faith that solar storms or subversive hackers won't some time in the future obliterate the digital record, I find the export of the tactile originals just so culturally wrong.
The advantage to the media empire of suddenly getting their unruly photographic library sorted, labelled, indexed and instantly accessible for free is obviously hugely attractive. But at the price of selling off the originals on eBay? At least some old photographic collections from newspapers like the Auckland Star, Nelson Mail and Wellington's Evening Post are already deposited in local museums and libraries.
Mr Thompson says they're not affected by the present deal.
With the first shipments scheduled to depart next week, is it too late to hope they could become part of a better solution as well?