Embarrassed staff at Auckland University have admitted they have mislaid a valuable and significant painting the artist's widow fears may have been lost or destroyed.
The university bought Cock a' Heil, Cock a Teil, a painting by Tom Kreisler, in 2001.
The painting was highly personal to Kreisler, whose Austrian Jewish parents fled Vienna before the outbreak of World War II.
It uses swastikas as legs for birds, and the title is a wordplay on cockatiel. The bird, a victim, is telling a story - its teil, or tale.
The painting was put on display in the university's former department of education, then located on Anzac Ave. The department left that building in November 2005 and relocated to the university's Epsom campus - but the Tom Kreisler painting seemingly did not make the trip with it.
When the university was approached in November last year about lending the artwork for inclusion in a Kreisler retrospective exhibition planned for next year, it was unable to find it.
It is the second time in a year that the university has found itself in an embarrassing position regarding the care of valuable artworks. In January, three valuable treasures worth at least $207,000 were plundered from Auckland University during the holidays. Art experts believe the items - a Charles Goldie painting, a set of seven Colin McCahon poems and an unbound copy of the Oxford Lectern Bible - have been stolen to order and may never be seen again.
A university spokeswoman said they were confident Cock a' Heil, Cock a Teil would be located, but conceded the university did not know where it was right now.
Another spokeswoman, Gabriella Davila, said Cock a' Heil, Cock a Teil was a valued part of the university's art collection.
"The university is confident the artwork is in safe storage at the Epsom campus," Ms Davila said.
"The university has been in touch with the Kreisler family about the whereabouts of this painting and will continue to maintain close communication with them on this matter."
Lesley Kreisler, the artist's widow, said the university had told her it might take up to six months to find the painting. "No one seems to know what has happened to it."
One person has told Mrs Kreisler of seeing the painting sitting on the floor in an empty room, sparking fears that the work may have been dumped or taken away.
"It does seem incredible that a work by a major New Zealand painter could be destroyed or go missing," Mrs Kreisler said.
She had gone public because she hoped someone would be able to shed light on the painting's whereabouts, not because she was angry with the university, she said.
Born in Argentina in 1938, Tom Kreisler moved to New Zealand in 1952.
He lived in Taranaki for most of his life and had a low national profile until the 1990s and the acclaimed touring exhibition Tom Kreisler: Private and Confidential.
Kreisler died in 2002. Prominent art critic and curator Wystan Curnow has called him "possibly New Zealand's most under-recognised important painter".By Mike Houlahan Email Mike