An "enormously commanding" Māori carving, displayed in Nazi-held Vienna throughout World War II, will go under the hammer this month.

Two of the world's top auction houses, Sotheby's and Bonhams, are selling Māori artefacts worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, including statues, carvings, weapons, hei tiki, and other jewellery at the two competing sales over the next fortnight.

The main attraction of Sotheby's Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas sale in New York on Tuesday (NZ time) is a "monumental… imposing" Māori sculpture that antiquary experts believe was probably part of the main palisade post of a North Island pā.

Experts believe the carving was probably part of the main palisade post of a North Island pā. Photo / Supplied
Experts believe the carving was probably part of the main palisade post of a North Island pā. Photo / Supplied

Standing 76cm tall and inscribed, 'KU KO KAHUKANUI', it comes from a private collection in New York and an estimate of NZ$287,000 to $430,000.


"The immense torso is carved with European letters; the exact translation of this inscription is unclear to us, but it may identify the name of an important ancestor, or the place or Chief upon whose territory the sculpture once stood," Sotheby's says in its catalogue notes.

The first recorded European history of the sculpture dates back to Viennese collector Friedrich Wolff-Knize who assembled an important collection of art from Africa, Oceania, and the Americas during the 1920s and 30s.

However, the Jewish collector fled Austria in 1938 a month after his homeland was annexed into Nazi Germany, leaving behind his precious artworks.

The collection was seized and exhibited the Naturhistorische Museum in Vienna for the duration of the war.

After Hitler was defeated, Wolff-Knize was reunited with the collection, which he brought to New York, where he had settled in 1940.

In 1950, a year after Wolff-Knize's death, Pierre Matisse, the art dealer son of legendary French painter Henri Matisse, acquired the Māori figure at auction.

"Matisse kept this monumental Māori sculpture in his private collection, and its imposing form is visible in archival photographs of his New York apartment," Sotheby's says.

A tiki is also up for sale. Photo / Supplied
A tiki is also up for sale. Photo / Supplied

Now, it headlines the sale's Māori collection which includes two hei tikis, with estimates of NZ$70,000 to $100,000 and NZ$43,000 to $70,000, a long club valued at NZ$8000 - $13,000, a 43cm club or wahaika described as a "Māori short weapon" likely to fetch as much as NZ$21,000, and a 12.1cm-high two-faced Māori carving valued at NZ$21,000 - $35,000.


A week after the Sotheby's sale, Bonhams in Los Angeles is offering a series of Māori artefacts for sale, including earrings, a hand club, and three hei tikis.

Māori artefacts have become increasingly popular with international museums and private collectors in recent years.

A hei tiki fetched $165,290 at Sotheby's in New York in 2008.

In 2014, 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.

An ornate Māori carving, described as being a "remarkable tour de force" by a master carver, was sold at Christie's Art d'Afrique et d'Océanie sale in Paris two years ago for $321,000.

The Ministry of Culture and Heritage monitors auctions within New Zealand, but does not follow those held overseas.

It has no ability under legislation such as the Protected Objects Act 1975 to stop sales, or force repatriation of cultural heritage material sold at auction overseas.