One of the greatest-ever collections of New Zealand folk art — which loosely translates as junk — goes under the auctioneer's hammer at 2pm today. It's a treasure trove, a wonderland, a strange and striking gallery of things that could only have been made in these islands. It's filled with beauty that may be mistaken for ugliness, and vice-versa.
Cordy's Auctions in Epsom is hoping to sell 456 lots from the estate of Ngaire Hart. She died in 2018 after a long battle with breast cancer.
Her name is legend in New Zealand collecting. She had an eye for a certain kind of object and went at it with passion and vigour. Her stuff spills out across the Cordy's catalogue, ranging from estimates of $60 (three eggcups painted with New Zealand flowers) to $4000 (description: "A diorama depicting a Māori hillside pa with warrior figures behind figural palisades and standing on an elevated platform hailing two figures standing below in a waka").
The most valuable items, including the hillside pa diorama, were made by Jane Brenkley. Lamps, bedside tables, gourds, ashtrays, pipe racks ... In short, all manner of junk. The term is not merely subjective: They were made to be sold on the cheap, as pleasant little kiwiana trinkets.
"Unless you know what you're looking at," said Fenella Tonkins of Cordy's, "when you first see a piece by Jane Brenkley, your natural inclination is to go, 'Yuk'. Yeah. To most people, it's just, 'Ugh'. Whereas us in the know, the collectors, it's 'Oh my God'."
Ugliness is in the eye of the beholder. But there is something else uncomfortable and disturbing about the objects, with their whiff of cultural appropriation. All her bric and all her brac were decorated with Māori motifs. Brenkley made them in the 1930s and 40s, in the old NZ, when it was routine to turn Māori iconography into gift shop kitsch. To see them on show in 2020 is to wonder about lines crossed and the usual colonial interferences.
Ross Millar from Cordy's said Hart was fully aware of the cultural sensitivities of collecting.
"Ngaire stepped away from collecting genuine Māori artefacts. She didn't want to take real taonga, and hold material that had true cultural value. But she saw this other area, the work of Jane Brenkley and others, that was maybe a neglected area of cultural significance in its own way."
The trinket boxes, the walking sticks, the Toby mugs of pipe-smoking kuia ... They look weird, amazing, sometimes unequivocally beautiful. The catalogue features the croonings of John Perry, former director of the Rotorua Museum of Art and History. He writes, "That a collection of this magnitude should come on to the market in one auction event should register around 8.5 on the cultural Richter scale."
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Fenella Tonkin was a friend of Hart. They both operated antique stores, and would go on buying jaunts around NZ, staying in B&Bs. She said, "Look. I tell you. It was such a wonderful business to be in. We used to call it going around the country looting and pillaging. There were so many antique stores. But since Trade Me, it's like a wasteland out there."
They had similar tastes. "We were both mad tile collectors — beautiful English Victorian tiles that we just loved."
Tonkin, too, admired Brenkley's work, and has two of her wooden boxes. They are not, she said emphatically, for sale. "They're for keeps. Gain doesn't come into it for me, or Ngaire, or any serious collector. But — okay. At the back of your mind, you think, 'Oh, maybe one day I could sell that for my new hip'. But that's not the main reason we collect. We collect because we love them."
Folk art, junk — the terms fall away. They don't matter too much. It's all about the object, its charms and handiwork. Tonkin said, "There's all sorts of other Kiwi folk art out there. There's poker work. Chip carving. Home pottery. Silversmithing. There's ... the wonderful, ubiquitous shellwork. New Zealanders were and are," she said, "a very creative lot."