The brazen theft of two rare paintings from an Auckland art gallery has sparked a second mystery for Maori - whose ancestors are missing?
Police are continuing to investigate the heist on Parnell's International Art Centre in the early hours of Saturday, where three people smashed a car through the gallery window before stealing the artworks.
Crafted by celebrated artist Gottfried Lindauer in 1884, the highly-valuable works are known as known as "Chieftainess Ngatai - Raure" and "Chief Ngatai - Raure".
They were set to be auctioned at the gallery on Tuesday night as part of an "important and rare" exhibition, and were expected to fetch around $1 million between them.
A description in the gallery catalogue said the portraits were believed to be of ancestors of Ngāi Te Rangi chief Taiaho Hōri Ngātai, a veteran of the Waikato wars, from Tauranga.
However, in the wake of their disappearances, the Ngatai whanau had investigated further, and believed the link was a mistake - causing angst for the family given Maori tikanga.
Maori view images of their ancestors in a much more intimate way than in non-Māori cultures, and consider paintings and photos to be representative of the dead.
"We are sure they're not our ancestors"
Ngatai family spokeswoman Meremaihi Aloua said the family had been looking at photos and the faces were not at all similar to their tupuna, so did not want to claim ownership of them.
"We are sure they're not our ancestors. We're wondering if it was a spelling error," she said.
Local historian Patrick Nicholas said Lindauer had made spelling errors before - particularly with the spelling of the word "ngati", a prefix for iwi names - instead spelling it "Ngatai", like in the missing paintings.
He said the word "raure" was also in dispute, and people had been debating whether it actually meant Rarua (the name of a South Island iwi) , Rauru (a Patea iwi ) or Rurea (a Tauranga hapu).
"It looks like to us it was a mistake. Those paintings are very poorly researched," he said. Nicholas had tried to identify those in the portraits from his own collection, with no luck.
This was made harder by the fact it was not known if the clothing, jewellery and feathers were the subjects' own, or whether they had even been wearing them for the sitting - as Lindauer was known for adopting his paintings on commission.
"I can see enough to know it's not Ngatai. But trying to work out who they were is heading into fairly airy-fairy territory. It's a long time ago," he said.
"We don't even think about the money."
Waikato University professor of reo and tikanga Pou Temara said for Maori, the paintings were about more than a dollar value.
"What we see is the true likeness of the person, seeing them in the flesh as they were," Temara said. "Maori don't see this as art. If they were to see it as art they would have carved it into wood and stone."
Temara said even it Maori didn't know that person, they felt close to them by way of whakapapa and historical accounts.
The importance of images went back to the Maori tradition of preserving heads, where Maori kept the likeness of a head intact and would use it in funeral rites - a function now performed by photographs.
"Maori will feel alarmed because an ancestor has gone missing. There will be a great hurt, and anger about the missing," he said.
"They're priceless, we don't even think about the money. They are taonga, they're sacred."
International Art Centre director Frances Davies said all they know about the paintings was in their catalogue online. She said they hadn't done further research into the paintings before placing them for sale.
The gallery is back open for business as usual, with the auction the paintings would have been part of going ahead last night. An unattributed, or unsigned, Lindauer went for $71,000 she said.
Police investigating the ram-raid burglary and theft of the paintings released CCTV images of the two alleged offenders and their car on Monday.
Inspector Scott Beard said police had received several calls following the release and the information was now being worked through by detectives.