From Sri Lankan tea plantation to Murupara house fire that ignited collector's passion for unearthing treasures

Chris Cameron is one of those sorts of people who floor us.

They repeatedly insist they are beyond boring, have led very ordinary lives then, if they're Chris Cameron, drop into the conversation they've been charged by an elephant - not once, but twice (to clarify, the charges were years apart), spent their first seven years on a tea plantation in what was then Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, and that their bloodline's half Sinhalese.

That part of Chris' genetic make-up is on his mum's side, his late father's contribution was Scottish; as a by-the-by an uncle's a Buddhist priest. You, ordinary, Chris? Who are you trying to kid?

We'd actually gone to chat with him with a completely different angle on his life story in mind - it was that, until its recent closure, he was the Rotorua Museum's longest-serving staffer, a weekend front-of-house fixture since 1989. When the Kaikoura quake forced the museum's sudden closure Chris chose redundancy over redeployment.


The decision was realistic, only a few months earlier he'd opened Rotorua Antiques and Collectables in Haupapa St, indulging his long-time passion for objects d'art.
It's an enterprise he shares with fellow enthusiasts Uria and Paul Jenkins, they met at the local collectors' club.

That's all very recent, we steer Chris back to his tea plantation life and times, living a lifestyle far removed from Murupara, and later Rotorua, where he spent his teenage years.

Born in Sri Lanka's central region city of Kandy, Chris 'blames' his subsequent lifestyle for his expensive tastes.

"Growing up we lived in palatial houses with wonderful gardens; although English was my main language, I also spoke Sinhalese and Tamil.

"We'd have these amazing holidays camping in the jungle, national parks with all their wildlife. You can't beat the sights, smell and sounds of the Ceylon jungle."

He still refers to the teardrop island by its former name.

Chris' first brush with an unfriendly bull elephant came in childhood; a family friend he was with followed one down a dead-end road.

"As soon as the Land Rover approached that elephant swung around and charged us. We were chased by it, trumpeting angrily. I remember being terrified, huddled in the back listening to it thundering after us before suddenly vanishing."

His second elephant encounter was on a trip 'home' with his mother when one took exception to them in a national park.

At 7, Chris was sent to an international boarding school in Colombo, he hated it. Sri Lanka's unstable political situation and the pending nationalisation of the tea industry saved him. His late father, Barry Cameron, broke a family tea planting tradition stretching back to the 1850s, choosing to leave for a less volatile country.

He chose New Zealand for what, to him, was the most logical reason. He loved rugby, captaining the team that confronted the New Zealand Colts, Colin Meads included, on their 1950s visit to Ceylon.

Barry Cameron joined the Forest Service, initially in Northland before promotion to Murupara, then the country's forestry hub.

"It was a great place to grow up, a wonderful community, with the Ureweras close by there was a lot of hunting and fishing, much like Ceylon."

Chris was 13 when fire gutted the family's home. "The community was wonderful, rallying around us as the windows exploded. We lost most of our possessions, the family heirlooms, that was the catalyst for me becoming a collector - to replace what we lost."

His first 'gem' was a bottle unearthed from beneath the Forest Service headquarter's veranda, a coach and horses staging post in earlier days.

"One day I showed the Whakatane Museum curator my bottle. He showed me a 200-year-old plate he'd picked up second hand. That kindled my interest in pottery and antiques. It was the days before the internet. I read a lot of reference books, found out what treasures antiques are."

In Chris' final high school year the Camerons moved to Rotorua; from Western Heights High he joined Lands and Survey's administration department. He was there when John Perry, the museum's then director (Our People, November 14, 2015) offered him the weekend job that became his for more than half his life.

When redundancy put paid to his Lands and Survey days Chris joined antique dealer, the late John McCartney.

"By then I had learnt a lot from mentors in the Bottle and Collectors Club. Working with John was absolutely fascinating, I learnt the trade [antiques] from him. He was a very astute dealer."

His time with McCartney Antiques spanned 16 years and three shop moves. Chris has held his own antique dealer's licence since 1998.

"Until last year I sold at auctions, through the shop in Cambridge where I bought my first antique at 12, it was a silver-topped, ruby glass scent bottle. Then I had a health scare, not helped by being asthmatic.

"That made me think if I don't open a shop now I never will. I haven't worked so hard in my life but I love it. It's given me the opportunity to meet the same fascinating people from all over the world I met at the museum."

The obvious question: do local dealers have the same Antiques Roadshow "wow" moments as their telly counterparts?

Chis has - it was when he was invited to inspect a collection a client's late husband had accumulated.

"She showed me a number of items which were interesting and collectable but not of great value, then I noticed an intricately carved wooden paddle hanging in the hallway.

"I recognised it as something special. The owner was very surprised when I told her it was a rare antique ceremonial dance paddle from the Austral Islands worth between $5000 and $10,000."

See Rotorua Antiques and Collectables online here.

Born: Kandy, Colombo, 1964
Education: Colombo English Language School, Aranga Primary, Northland; Tawhiao Primary, Rangatahi College, Murupara; Western Heights High
Family: Mother: Catherine Cameron, sister and brother-in-law Lorna and Alex Sole (all Rotorua). Partner Dean Phillips. "We met in the Fuze Bar, have been together 13 years. I'm so fortunate to come from such a loving family."
Interests: Antiques, collecting Kiwiana "I learnt about that and New Zealand folk art from John Perry, he introduced me to this wonderful world."
"I love nature, wildlife, holidays at the beach, our cat Fluffy, she's gorgeous." Travel, Japanese and tropical gardens
On Rotorua: "It's a place where you can be an average person and feel at home."
Personal philosophy: "Do to others what you would want them do to you."