A collection of historical Māori artefacts, including an "exceptional and rare" hei tiki pendant that could fetch around $500,000, is going under the hammer in New York.

The remarkable items form part of international auction house Bonhams' African, Oceanic and Pre-Colombian Art sale on November 11.

The 10cm-high pounamu hei tiki - one of the finest examples of its kind ever to surface at auction - is the sale's major showpiece.

Dating to around 1600-1700, the "exquisitely carved" 10cm-high pendant is thought to have come from the Bay of Plenty region.

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Its right eye features a pāua shell inlay with red sealing wax as a pupil, and although the left eye inlay is missing, Bonhams still has it estimated at NZ$310,000 to NZ$470,000.

At some point, it found its way into the hands of renowned British ethnographic collector James Thomas Hooper.

Hooper, who began collecting artefacts in 1912 when his father gave him a spear, obsessively snapped up Oceanic, African, Inuit and Northern American items throughout his life – despite never leaving his native England.

Englishman James Hooper had one of the world's largest private collections of Polynesian art - despite never leaving the United Kingdom. Photo / Supplied
Englishman James Hooper had one of the world's largest private collections of Polynesian art - despite never leaving the United Kingdom. Photo / Supplied

By 1957, he'd amassed what Bonhams called "the most important private collection of Polynesian art" and opened the Totems Museum in the West Sussex market town of Arundel.

Hooper wrote, "After my service in World War I … I could see that no time should be lost if such objects were to be preserved and I therefore commenced in earnest the forming of an ethnographical collection."

Museums around the world today own items from the Hooper collection, including Wellington's Te Papa which has 34 objects including Māori weapons and tools. A spokeswoman for Te Papa said it does not comment on auctions.

The hei tiki was sold to Christie's auction house in 1977 after Hooper's death, before forming part of the Robert M. Browne Collection in Honolulu. It's being sold next month by the Mark and Carolyn Blackburn Collection, an American couple who made their money in the Oriental carpet business which funded four decades amassing one of the world's greatest private collections of Polynesian art.

"This pendant is exquisitely carved with stone tools from the highly-valued pounamu nephrite greenstone, in rare low-relief form with an exceedingly rare turn of the head to the left," said Fred Backlar, Bonhams' consultant of African, Oceanic and Pre-Colombian art, said.

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Backlar said there has already been interest shown in the tiki and added that there are no import or export restrictions on its sale.

An elaborate Māori tinder box is also going under the hammer at Bonhams. Photo / Supplied
An elaborate Māori tinder box is also going under the hammer at Bonhams. Photo / Supplied

Other Māori items included in the Bonhams sale include a wooden Māori end-blown straight flute (estimate NZ$19,000 – NZ$28,000), an elaborate tinder box (estimate NZ$6300 – NZ$9400), three finely-carved wakahuia treasure boxes (with estimates ranging from NZ$6300 – NZ$19,000), a basalt hand club (estimate NZ$3100 – NZ$4700), and a pair of Māori storehouse doorjambs reportedly collected on a voyage to the South Pacific around 150 years ago (estimate NZ$39,000 – NZ$55,000).

Māori artefacts have boomed in popularity – and price – with international museums and private collectors in recent years.

In 2008, a hei tiki fetched $165,290 at Sotheby's in New York, while five years ago, a rare Māori statue - one of just six known pou whakairo sculptures in the world - sold at Sotheby's for a world-record $2.28 million.

In 2016, ornate Māori carving, described as being a "remarkable tour de force" by a master carver, sold at a Christie's auction in Paris for $321,000.

The Ministry for Culture and Heritage (MCH) monitors auctions within New Zealand to ensure that taonga tūturu are traded in accordance with the Protected Objects Act 1975.

Two Māori storehouse doorjambs are estimated to fetch NZ$39,000 - NZ$55,000 at auction in New York on November 11. Photos / Supplied
Two Māori storehouse doorjambs are estimated to fetch NZ$39,000 - NZ$55,000 at auction in New York on November 11. Photos / Supplied

However, it has no ability under the legislation to stop sales, or force repatriation of cultural heritage material sold at auction overseas.

"Unless objects have been illegally exported from New Zealand there are no grounds under the Act to intervene," said Imelda Bargas, manager of MCH's Te Pae Māpuna.

"While we understand there may be interest from New Zealand museums - often working in partnership with iwi - in significant taonga when they do come up for auction internationally, we also recognise these organisations must make collection decisions independently and in accordance with their own policies and priorities."

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