An "irreplaceable" private collection of work by some of New Zealand's finest contemporary artists has been destroyed in a fire at a house near New Plymouth.

Work by Colin McCahon and Ralph Hotere was among pieces worth many millions of dollars destroyed at a rural property owned by John and Lynda Matthew.

Mr Matthews, chairman of the Len Lye Foundation, said he had been building the extensive collection for 50 years.

"They're all there, from [Ralph] Hotere, [Philip] Clairmont, [Jeff] Thomson, [Allen] Maddox and [Colin] McCahon and so on."


Work by Hotere that was destroyed included part of his Aramoana series and pieces from his Black Union Jack series protesting against the 1981 Springbok tour.

Many of the items lost were bought directly from the artists.

When firefighters arrived at the Omata property Mr Matthews asked if they could save a wing of his home housing his most prized pieces. They were unable to do so.

"The whole place is gone," he said.

Although a few Len Lye sculptures were stored at the property, Mr Matthews said he was more disappointed by the loss of a jacket and hat the artist had given him.

The cause of the blaze was unknown but Mr Matthews suspected electrical components were to blame.

His home and the art were insured, but the collection was irreplaceable, he said.

"You hold these works in trusts for the artists and the viewers who enjoy the works, so those people have suffered as much as we have."

Gow Langsford Gallery director John Gow said the collection was a "very important private collection of contemporary New Zealand art".

"For the collectors, for John and Lynda, that will rip their heart out, because collectors become very attached to their art and know that they're never ever going to see those paintings again.

"It's a loss for them, it's a loss for the artists, the artists' estates - in that if there's a big retrospective in years to come, those works will never be available to be loaned again."

Art dealer Warwick Henderson said the destruction was a "great loss for someone who's such a committed and astute collector". "Artwork is a very personal thing."

Mr Matthews said he, his wife and their Great Dane made it out of the burning home "battered and unscathed" after being woken by alarms just after midnight.

The property had a number of extinguishers and fire hoses but after the fire made it into the roof there was no hope, he said.

New Plymouth fire station senior officer Ian Drewery said the blaze raged out of control due to the property's location, lack of water and windy conditions.

"The water supply ran out very quickly. There was a tank but we weren't able to access it easily and when we [could] we couldn't get a very good supply from it."

Water tankers were ordered but by the time they arrived it was too late, Mr Drewery said.

"It's a timely reminder for people who live in areas where there isn't a reticulated water supply and they'll often be some way away from a fire brigade, that access to good substantial water supply [is essential]."