Brian Rudman

Brian Rudman is a NZ Herald feature writer and columnist.

Rudman's city: Waitakere looks set to lose valuable part of its history

By BRIAN RUDMAN

West Auckland, which is not exactly groaning with cultural treasures, seems set to wave goodbye to an irreplaceable part of its heritage.

And leading the cheer squad are Waitakere City mayor Bob Harvey and his council.

Rather than make peace with self-taught pottery expert Richard Quinn for the wrongs the city has done him, it is as though civic leaders prefer to see his irreplaceable collection of local pottery and ceramics either broken up or disappear south to Te Papa.

If the latter does occur, mayor Harvey can take the credit - or blame.

It was he, in a fiery memo to councillors last year, who suggested giving away the collection to "Te Papa or the Victoria and Albert Museum in London as colonial crockery. In other words ... as far away as possible."

Mr Harvey was being dismissive. Te Papa curator Ian Wedde is not. Last week he spent more than three hours with the collection and plans to dispatch historians back for a closer look.

It was "hugely interesting material" for anyone interested in the larger cultural history of New Zealand, he said.

The other option for Mr Quinn is to sell the collection piece by piece.

Unemployed and worn down by his battles, he has neither the money nor the space at home to house his collection.

A year ago I suggested there had never been a more weird and pointless battle. Since then it has not got any better.

A quick refresher: In 1988 the dying New Lynn Borough Council obtained the abandoned Crown Lynn kiln in Ambrico Place for use as a pottery museum. A committee was established and Mr Quinn got involved.

Through excavations, scavenging and deal-making with the owners of the closed potteries, Mr Quinn soon filled the old kiln and neighbouring shed with relics - old bricks, plaster moulds, table and decorative wares and machinery.

During 1993, a dispute between Mr Quinn and the council over who owned what culminated in police officers tossing Mr Quinn off the kiln premises. No charges were laid by the council but Mr Quinn was not allowed near "his" property.

The battle reached a new climax in September 1999 when the council shipped the treasure off to a secret South Auckland warehouse.

By then, unknown sums of ratepayers' money had been spend on photographing the hundreds of disputed items.

Last December, Ombudsman Anand Satyanand ruled that the council had acted unreasonably in having police throw Mr Quinn out.

The council also apologised for Mr Quinn's seven years of distress and said he could retrieve any material he considered was his. Councillor Ross Dallow, a former senior police officer, was put in charge of negotiating a settlement.

The collection was shifted back to an Avondale warehouse in December but it was not until 5 pm on March 7 - seven years and six months to the minute since police tossed him out of the kiln - that Mr Quinn was given access to the warehouse. And who said Mr Dallow didn't have a sense of humour.

Mr Quinn says he has offered his collection to the city at independent valuation and will treat that as a full settlement of his claims against the council.

The offer was rejected. Waitakere ratepayers might well ask why? Letting the issue drag on is likely to cost them more.

After all, as part of the settlement process, the council is paying Mr Quinn's legal costs. On top of that, the damages bill could well come to more than the value of the collection.

Mr Quinn acknowledges he is "a prickly bastard." But that is hardly a reason for officials to let this treasure trove disappear.

Certainly the outside expert the city brought in to value it has no doubts of its worth. John Perry, an antique dealer and one-time director of Rotorua's Old Bathhouse museum, said it "was like walking into Tutankhamen's tomb."

Mr Perry and Te Papa's Ian Wedde both see the value of the Quinn collection as the keystone to a museum display on the history of local industrial pottery.

If Te Papa takes it, at least the collection will be kept intact. But it really belongs in Auckland - or more specifically in its West Auckland home.

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