A hei-tiki pendant has sold at an auction in Paris for more than $50,000 - a process a Māori art historian says furthers the "disconnection" of indigenous people from their culture.

The Māori artefact sold on June 29 for $52,000 (€30,000) at a Christie's auction in Paris, which had already raised controversy for listing allegedly stolen artefacts of Nigerian origin.

The taonga was part of the James and Marilynn Alsdorf Collection, from Chicago, and was included in Christies' Arts of Africa, Oceania & North America sale.

University of Auckland Associate Professor Ngarino Ellis, who specialises in Māori art history, said hei-tiki pendants were well-known internationally, and commonly sought after at such auctions for "tribal collections".

Advertisement

"They are recognisably old and authentic, and a symbol of Māori culture, so it is something all tribal art collectors want," said Ellis, of Ngāpuhi and Ngāti Porou.

"But for Māori, the hei-tiki is one of our most significant treasures, taonga."

This hei-tiki pendant sold at a Christie's auction in Paris on June 29 for about $52,000. Photo / Supplied
This hei-tiki pendant sold at a Christie's auction in Paris on June 29 for about $52,000. Photo / Supplied

Sometimes hei-tiki were named after people, and removed in death so continued to represent the ancestor.

"If you looked at a family tree, you could place this hei-tiki in that framework. They were used in ceremonies to represent them, in a way like photographs might be used."

They could also symbolise fertility, and were often given to women if there were issues conceiving a child.

While they were "beautiful", it was "very painful" to see them sold for exorbitant sums on the other side of the world, knowing Māori could never afford to buy them all back, Ellis said.

"It is ongoing colonisation, when it is sold like this merely as an object to go into a private collection, a further symbol of disconnection from our culture.

"I hate seeing it. It means Māori don't have their relationship with this ancestor, and it becomes more strained for our artists to have models they can use to reconnect with their heritage and whakapapa, just because someone paid a lot of money for it and it can go into a curated gallery."

Advertisement

There was little description on the Christies website of the latest example, but Ellis said it appeared to be female and carved from a "really rare and precious" type of greenstone with adze, and likely in the 19th century.

At 7.5cm she was about the "typical size".

"It is beautifully made, an unusual type of hei-tiki, with the hand on her chest and one on her thigh, definitely made by someone who is Māori, and knows aesthetic design."

It was unclear exactly how this hei-tiki wound up overseas, but they often left Māori communities who were at an economic disadvantage and had to sell them to survive, Ellis said.

"Others were gifted, so might symbolise a relationship."

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.

Advertisement

A spokeswoman said as the hei-tiki was previously sold in London in 1968 it appeared to fall out of bounds of the legislation.

Ellis said she'd like to see the Ministry start a database of taonga overseas.

"My questions would be how did it leave New Zealand? And why are they not providing that information? These things were likely stolen or looted, and displayed without any knowledge of the original artist."

Christie's has been approached for comment.

Monday's auction also came under fire for selling statues which Nigerian museum officials said were stolen during the country's civil war in the 1960s, Al Jazeera reported.

A pair of Igbo statues were sold for $370,000, which along with another that failed to sell were among a number of "African masterpieces" that Christie's said came from an "important European private collection" they declined to name.

Advertisement

However, the head of Nigeria's National Museum had said the objects were stolen during the Biafran war in the late 1960s and called on Christie's "and other auction houses to halt the process immediately".

Last year a hei-tiki sold for over $140,000, and another for over $110,000 in separate auctions at Bonhams in New York.

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, an 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.