It was once a personal treasure, now it's everyone's.

At Wellington's Government House, a place where foreign dignitaries are welcomed and one of our most prestigious and significant properties, a mystery is on display at the entrance to the ballroom.

It is a kiwi cloak - kahu kiwi - but nobody knows where the taonga originated.

"We know it was given to Sir Bernard Ferguson," says Government House visitor centre co-ordinator Heather Mills.

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"He was the last of the British-born governor-generals. He came from Scotland to New Zealand in 1962 to 1967.

"It wasn't given to him though by a Māori tribe. It was given to him by a lady called Marjorie Dalrymple."

No one knows where the kiwi feather cloak originated from.
No one knows where the kiwi feather cloak originated from.

Dalrymple was principal of Woodford House, a school for girls in Havelock North, in the 1920s and in 1928 she returned to Scotland.

"She bought this kahu kiwi, as far as we understand, from a sort-of shop in Hawke's Bay. Whether it was a dealer or second-hand shop, we are not quite sure."

Lady Marjorie gave it to New Zealand's new governor-general on the eve of his departure from Britain and asked it be hung in perpetuity in Government House.

About 10 years ago it was found to have suffered insect damage and needed repair.

It was hoped that process may reveal more about its provenance, but the Te Papa conservator found few clues as to where it was made. She said an ornate border was added to the cloak after it arrived in Government House and the garment would have likely been made after 1850 because feather cloaks weren't in use before contact with Europeans.

Mills said Government House has not been in touch with Hawke's Bay iwi Ngāti Kahungunu because so few clues on the cloak's provenance exist. It is due to be rested from display and put into storage in the coming years, an opportunity to send a sample of feathers away for DNA testing.

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But even with the knowledge of where in New Zealand the feathers come from, Government House may still be no closer to unravelling its kahu kiwi mystery.

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