Michael Parekowhai is this country's most saleable living artist. But a record $1.5 million paid by Te Papa for his red piano has sparked concerns about the museum's lack of transparency with taxpayer funds, writes Josie McNaught.

New York City. It's snowing hard outside and they are predicting more to come in one of the coldest Februarys the city has endured for years. The final strains of waiata reverberate around the Asia Society Museum as part of an exhibition opening ceremony.

The Maori magic is doing its job and the press descend on the show, marvelling at work from the likes of Lisa Reihana, Nicky Hastings-McFall, John Pule and Michael Parekowhai who is exhibiting his Kapa Haka series of 10 fibreglass security officers. The officers form a guard of honour into the show.

As the notoriously hard-bitten New York media attempt to absorb this art, like none other they've seen before, a figure appears in the doorway, arms outstretched: "Come on guys - what do you think of this stuff?"


It's Parekowhai, teasing the media, who stop, stare and then rush over to check out this strange specimen: An artist who wants to engage.

That was 2004. Fast forward to 2011 and Parekowhai is exhibiting at the prestigious Venice Biennale. The largest part of his three-part installation, which includes two black bronze pianos topped with giant bulls, a bronze security guard, a brass olive tree and pair of Crocs, is a bright red Steinway piano with traditional carving and paua shell trim.

By the end of last year, Te Papa had parted with $1.5 million for the red piano, a move that sucked up most of their yearly acquisitions budget. Another $1m, sources say, was spent on Colin McCahon's Koru 1,2,3, leaving little, if anything, to buy art for the rest of this financial year.

This month, as the books are closed on the 2011/12 year, some are asking the question: When public finances are tighter than they have been for a long time, what did Te Papa get for our money?

At least the piano, called He Korero Purakau mo te Awanui o Te Motu: Story of a New Zealand river, was in working order.

Parekowhai the artist is Associate Professor at Auckland University's school of fine arts. His art practice moves across photography and sculpture and his work is often produced in small editions.

Parekowhai the man is more of an enigma. He does few interviews and, like many artists, would rather his work did the talking.

He grew up in a state house suburb on the North Shore, allegedly one of the naughty boys who was noticed by his art teacher at Northcote College and encouraged to put his spirit and humour into art instead of mischief.

He could have fallen through the cracks but instead he has become one of the most unique artistic voices in this country. The genial self confidence and smart, unpretentious manner on show in New York has endeared him to the art audience along with his refusal to be captured by anyone's ideology, Maori or Pakeha. How else could he make his giant blow-up bunnies, which take a shot at "imported" pests - bunnies and white people - making the audience laugh and think about it all at the same time?

While the red piano is the most expensive work by a living artist bought by the museum, it comes on the back of another Te Papa Parekowhai purchase, Beggarman, bought through Michael Lett Gallery in 2008.

It's from the 1996 series of Poorman, Beggarman and Thief. In a purchase organised by curator of Maori and indigenous art, Megan Tamati-Quennell, Te Papa paid $135,000 for Beggarman - an 18-fold increase on the original purchase price of $7500. The work consists of a fibreglass mannequin on a stand, dressed in a dinner suit with an inscribed name badge.

Parekowhai's dealer Michael Lett is happy to chat about the sale.

"I take responsibility for putting the price on it. How did I come up with that price? It was set by and against other works that sold in the gallery at the time."

Apart from that he can throw little light on how Te Papa reached the $135,000 figure, except to say they are required to get independent valuations and he believes they are thorough when delving into the price structure of an artwork.

Lett was comfortable with the figure, based on how Parekowhai's work was selling outside the public auction market. "There is so much that happens in private galleries that is not for the public record."

Te Papa's activities are for the public record but an Official Information Act request for copies of valuations for the Parekowhai works was declined by Te Papa on the grounds the information was "commercially sensitive".

The red piano purchase has been occupying the minds of dealers up and down the country, though none were keen to be named for fear that whatever remaining loose change Te Papa might have would be diverted away from their doors; the anonymity required for dealers to talk freely underlines the power Te Papa holds in the market place.

One dealer bemoans the fact she has had a work put "on hold" by Te Papa for a year, while the necessary sign-offs are sorted. Another says Te Papa beat the price down and spread payments over more than one financial year.

One art maven remarked that the Parekowhai piano purchase, which appeared to move through the bureaucratic channels relatively quickly, was no surprise, given Parekowhai had always indicated he was making the work "for Te Papa" - an extraordinary state of affairs which essentially makes Te Papa a commissioner and collector.

This illustrates how unregulated the art market is. Compared with real estate, car sales, the sharemarket and now finance companies, the opacity around pricing and reporting in the art market is staggering.

Lett says dealers have a responsibility to place work in institutional collections, but can do little about the price recorded at auctions, which he doesn't regard as a true measure of an artist's dollar value in the market. He said he was able to set a price tag of $1.5m for Parekowhai's red piano, based on a private sale to a client of one of the bronze pianos from Venice. The figure of $1.2m has been doing the rounds and, while Lett won't confirm or deny, he admits it's in the ballpark.

Dealers' reticence about pricing and Te Papa's refusal to divulge details of its valuations, means the auction market is the only public information available on pricing. In 2008, when Te Papa paid $135,000 for Beggarman, Parekowhai works sold at auction for as little as $2800 for a Type C photograph, artists proof (edition of 10). The highest amount paid was $49,000 for Kokowai (Kapa Haka), one of the fibreglass guards first shown in New York.

In 2010, Poorman, bought in 1997 for $8000, came up for auction at Webb's and the only sale available to set the estimate was the $135,000 deal with Te Papa. The work was duly listed with a range of $100,000 to $120,000. It was passed in, but then sold in early 2011 for about $80,000. In April a two-piece aluminium work, Atarangi, sold at Art+Object for $70,000.

Asked why Te Papa was prepared to pay top dollar for Parekowhai's work given the auction prices, Te Papa chief executive Michael Houlihan refused to comment as he was too busy.

Houlihan is a British import with a penchant for grey suits, coloured socks and the science and history parts of the museum rather than the art collection. According to disgruntled staff, his major achievement last year was vision statements in English and Te Reo displayed prominently in Te Papa's offices for staff to contemplate.

But this is mere irritation compared with the lack of money for acquisitions over the past year. A rare set of 1950s chairs and coffee table by architect Ernst Plischke, which came up for auction last year, never made it into the museum. Ditto Don Binney's 1964 work, Kotare over the Ratana Church, Te Kao, which writer Dick Scott put up for sale last year. It would make a stunning addition to Te Papa's Binney collection, but it went to a private collector for $270,000 and may not be seen publicly again.

Lett has no reason to apologise for this - he is simply doing his job. He doesn't care what Te Papa pays for other artists' work. "I believe I sell things at market price. There is no mystery here. This is what I do."

Te Papa is not the only institution with deep pockets when it comes to Parekowhai's art. Auckland University paid $50,000 in instalments for one of his bronze security guards (edition of three) back in 2008/09 and the acquisitions committee is considering the purchase of the other bronze piano from Venice for about $1m, if private funding becomes available.

If Auckland University's private funder comes through, Parekowhai's total sales to institutions would rise to about $2.7m, without considering the spin-offs from the $700,000 funding boost to his career provided by Creative New Zealand for the Venice Biennale and the year's paid leave he was entitled to from Auckland University last year when he worked on his Biennale exhibition. Even minus his dealer's commission and the costs of production, it's not a bad income.

Ironically, thanks to the sums paid by New Zealand institutions, a new Parekowhai has become the art bargain of the year for Brisbane's Gallery of Modern Art. His proposed three-piece work in bronze was awarded the Premier of Queensland's Sculpture Commission in late 2011, a prize with a price tag of about A$1m ($1.3m) including fabrication and shipping.

Long time Parekowhai collectors and Te Papa critics Jim and Mary Barr have trumpeted the $1.5m sale of the red piano on their blog, but they've stayed strangely silent about the fact that this work chews through almost all of Te Papa's remaining acquisition budget. Perhaps the Barrs have been stunned into silence by watching their own savvy purchases rise in value as well. It's a shame no one from Te Papa thought to buy the Beggarman series for less than $20,000 back in 1996.

As one art insider remarked when I put the figures to him: "Who says art doesn't appreciate?"