The brazen theft of two rare paintings from an Auckland art gallery has sparked a second mystery for Maori - whose ancestors are missing?

Police are continuing to investigate the heist on Parnell's International Art Centre in the early hours of Saturday, where three people smashed a car through the gallery window before stealing the artworks.

Crafted by celebrated artist Gottfried Lindauer in 1884, the highly-valuable works are known as known as "Chieftainess Ngatai - Raure" and "Chief Ngatai - Raure".

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They were set to be auctioned at the gallery on Tuesday night as part of an "important and rare" exhibition, and were expected to fetch around $1 million between them.

A description in the gallery catalogue said the portraits were believed to be of ancestors of Ngāi Te Rangi chief Taiaho Hōri Ngātai, a veteran of the Waikato wars, from Tauranga.

However, in the wake of their disappearances, the Ngatai whanau had investigated further, and believed the link was a mistake - causing angst for the family given Maori tikanga.

Maori view images of their ancestors in a much more intimate way than in non-Māori cultures, and consider paintings and photos to be representative of the dead.

Descendents of Taiaho Hōri Ngātai say this painting isn't him, or any of his whanau. Photo/File.
Descendents of Taiaho Hōri Ngātai say this painting isn't him, or any of his whanau. Photo/File.

"We don't even think about the money."

Waikato University professor of reo and tikanga Pou Temara said for Maori, the paintings were about more than a dollar value.

"What we see is the true likeness of the person, seeing them in the flesh as they were," Temara said. "Maori don't see this as art. If they were to see it as art they would have carved it into wood and stone."

Temara said even it Maori didn't know that person, they felt close to them by way of whakapapa and historical accounts.

The importance of images went back to the Maori tradition of preserving heads, where Maori kept the likeness of a head intact and would use it in funeral rites - a function now performed by photographs.

"Maori will feel alarmed because an ancestor has gone missing. There will be a great hurt, and anger about the missing," he said.

"They're priceless, we don't even think about the money. They are taonga, they're sacred."

The International Art Centre in Parnell, Auckland, was robbed in a ram-raid at about 4am on Saturday morning. Photo/Jason Oxenham
The International Art Centre in Parnell, Auckland, was robbed in a ram-raid at about 4am on Saturday morning. Photo/Jason Oxenham

International Art Centre director Frances Davies said all they know about the paintings was in their catalogue online. She said they hadn't done further research into the paintings before placing them for sale.

The gallery is back open for business as usual, with the auction the paintings would have been part of going ahead last night. An unattributed, or unsigned, Lindauer went for $71,000 she said.

Police investigating the ram-raid burglary and theft of the paintings released CCTV images of the two alleged offenders and their car on Monday.

Inspector Scott Beard said police had received several calls following the release and the information was now being worked through by detectives.