Millionaire businessman Chris Liddell secretly pledged up to $80,000 to help Te Papa buy what it thought was Sir Peter Snell's historic 1964 Olympic Games singlet.

The Weekend Herald can reveal a number of new details behind the infamously cancelled auction for what was supposed to be Snell's double gold singlet from the Tokyo Games, including:

• Former Microsoft finance chief Liddell generously offered to double Te Papa's $80,000 budget to secure the winning bid;

• How Te Papa checked the singlet's condition but only questioned its authenticity after bidding;


• Te Papa knew Sir Peter's signature in the framed piece was a "reproduction", and the pictures were "downloaded from the internet".

The Weekend Herald has obtained over 500 pages of internal Te Papa communications through the Official Information Act, including text messages between chief executive Rick Ellis and Liddell - one of New Zealand's most successful businessmen.

Liddell, who helped engineer one of the biggest sharemarket listings in history - the US$23 billion float of General Motors in 2010 - is now an active philanthropist. He was interested in buying the three-time Olympic gold medal-winner's singlet and donating it to Te Papa to preserve a piece of New Zealand sporting history.

Emails reveal an unnamed contact at New Zealand Rugby helped connect Liddell with Te Papa, whose boss, former TVNZ chief Ellis, explained to museum colleagues "Chris was a contemporary of mine at Mt Albert Grammar".

Rather than bidding against each other, the parties agreed to join forces for a combined budget of $160,000 and went on to win with a bid of $122,500, plus a further $18,375 on a "buyer's premium".

"Hi Chris, we nailed it. $140k. Talk soon. Greatly appreciate your support. It made the difference. Rick," Ellis texted Liddell soon after the June 21 auction.

But nine days later, Cordy's auction house scrapped the whole thing after Te Papa questioned the singlet's authenticity.

Internal communications reveal Te Papa did not question the authenticity before the Government-funded museum prepared to bid - even though staff had spoken directly with original owner John Ashbolt and knew he'd added a reproduction of Snell's signature in the presentation frame along with three photographs he had downloaded.

Ashbolt agreed those facts were discussed with Te Papa and he still believes he owns Snell's authentic 1964 Games singlet.

Te Papa's due diligence did include a "condition report" from a consultant, but they admit the probe wasn't scoped to scrutinise whether the item was legitimate.

"The purpose of the Object Lab report was solely to look at the condition of the item - for example to look for stains, holes or damage - not to assess the singlet's authenticity," said a Te Papa spokeswoman.

"Te Papa is of the view that the parties came in to the sale in good faith, believing the item was authentic. We have not laid a complaint with police or Cordy's."

Te Papa said the event was "unfortunate" and they hoped to work with Liddell again.

"Chris Liddell's offer to support the singlet bid was incredibly generous. He is a proud Kiwi who obviously has a huge dedication to preserving New Zealand's heritage, and we look forward to working with him in the future," the spokeswoman said.

Liddell told the Weekend Herald he was disappointed the situation didn't work out.

"I was delighted to support Te Papa's bid for the Peter Snell singlet.

"It was disappointing for all parties when the sale was cancelled, but I passionately believe that icons of our heritage should remain in New Zealand, and be available to all New Zealanders."