A WAIRARAPA historian is on a quest to discover the identities of two Masterton tipuna (ancestors) who appear in photographs that are well over a century old.

The images, one of a woman and another of a man, were donated to Wairarapa Archive earlier this month.

They were taken circa 1880 by Masterton photographer Thomas Edward Price.

Gareth Winter, historian and archivist, is eager to put names to the mystery couple so he can return copies of the photographs to their families.

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They were sent to him by his acquaintance John Webster, an Auckland collector.

Mr Winter said he was extremely excited to find the pictures enclosed in an envelope with a note.

"I hope you will accept, and give a home to, the enclosed photographs of two former residents of Masterton and district," Mr Webster's note read.

"Now all you have to do is find out who they are!"

The portraits are carte de visite, also known as CVDs, which are playing card size photographs that were standard in the 1880s.

"They're rare, and to see ones of Maori are especially rare, and have commercial value so it's very kind of him to donate them to us."

Mr Winter said it was hard to determine anything about the subjects from the clothing they were wearing in the photographs. Because photographers frequently used props, it was possible the clothes did not belong to the people in the images.

The cloak the woman is wearing in the image appears to be on the ground in the photograph of the man.

Mr Price, a Welshman, was the town photographer in Masterton from about 1879 to 1896.

After that he moved to Tauranga.

"[Mr Price] took mainly portraits, but most of the photographs we have of Masterton around that time were taken by him.

"He had a special interest in Maori and at one time claimed he had 3000 Maori portraits."

Mr Winter describes Mr Price as "an exceptional photographer".

However, Mr Price was also known to copy other people's photographs and sell them as his own, Mr Winter said. Because of this, there was a chance that the two images were not originals and therefore potentially not of Wairarapa tipuna.

Mr Winter invited anybody with any knowledge of the man and woman to contact him at Wairarapa Archive.

"They are both beautiful photos, the lady in particular has a presence about her."

Mr Winter said looking closely at her image there was a light moko on her chin.