Tattooed Maori heads were sold for only £2 on the streets of Australia and still, museums refuse to send them home. Jonathan Milne reports.

Paul Moon stands on Sydney's George St, amid the blur of movement in Australia's biggest city, the money, the fashion and technology stores - and realises some things haven't changed from nearly 200 years ago.

The buildings are bigger now, the shop windows gleam more brightly, but this has always been a street where you can buy almost anything.

And, he recalls, in 1820 that included toi moko, the shrunken, tattooed Maori heads that were stolen from burial sites by unscrupulous European collectors or taken in war and sold by enemy iwi.


In Moon's new history, A Savage Country, the AUT history professor reveals that these "native curios" first sold for about £21 but by 1820, they could be picked up in the George St markets for as little as £2 - a week's wages for a working man, a pittance for the monied classes.

One correspondent in the Sydney Gazette told how he had seen a man carrying a cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm up George St, and asked to see it.

"With perfect indifference as to my feelings and consternation, the man replied it was the head of a New Zealander, which he had purchased from a person lately arrived from that country and that he was going to dispose of it for two guineas to a gentleman who was about to embark for England."

It was a cruel example of supply and demand in a free market.

As Maori discovered they could sell the sacrosanct heads of their enemies for muskets, some - especially among Ngati Toa, Ngapuhi and the tribes of the Far North - put aside their scruples and began producing more heads.

As first they boosted supply by manufacturing excuses to go to war and capture more enemy chiefs; then they began roughly tattooing their slaves, waiting for the scars to heal, beheading them and selling them.

But they created a market glut and prices plummeted.

That coincided with a newfound squeamishness on the part of Europeans, driven by revelations in the Gazette which labelled the trade "an outrage on humanity".


The New South Wales Governor eventually imposed a £40 fine on anyone dealing in human remains, which drove the trade off the streets and into the black markets.

But it never disappeared entirely. Major-General Horatio Robley managed to build up a collection of 35 toi moko, which were acquired by the American Museum of Natural History in New York in 1898 and now reside in a box in a vault with restricted access.

As recently as 1988, a Maori head was offered for sale in the prestigious Bonham's auction house in London.

There was a public outcry and it was withdrawn from sale and returned to New Zealand, where it remains, unidentified, in a vault in the national museum, Te Papa.

This week, Bay of Islands artist Lester Hall courted controversy by advertising the sale of $750 posters depicting a tattooed head from the Robley collection, with roses in its eye sockets and teeth.

But the worst offenders were New Zealand's own museum curators.

Under the guise of "science", the curators at the Auckland, Wellington and Canterbury museums continued to buy heads into the 1920s.

They would barter the toi moko with overseas curators and collectors to build up their international collections. As a result, Te Papa - which is charged with bringing home toi moko and other Maori remains from overseas - finds itself in the embarrassing position of holding about 60 human remains from 20 countries, which it has made no effort to repatriate.

Te Papa has negotiated and brought back more than 200 human remains from museums around the world, most recently 21 toi moko from France.

But repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini estimates there are more than 100 toi moko still to be brought home.

At the end of the year, Te Papa representatives will visit the United States and Canada to collect five toi moko and five skeletons.

But one of the biggest challenges remains the repatriation of the 35 Robley heads from the New York museum. The museum has been reluctant to even talk to Te Papa but they remain optimistic.

Haami Piripi, a member of Te Papa's repatriation advisory panel, says: "In New York, if you turn up in an old rental, you get told to bugger off.

"But if you turn up in a New Zealand Embassy limousine with the New Zealand flag flying, they invite you in for a cup of tea."

Somewhat perversely, Te Papa has one other trump up its sleeve.

Among the human remains it still holds are those of several native Americans from New York.

Not that they would directly swap them for the Maori remains, says Herewini.

That would be a trade too far.