New Zealand's recovery of the Motunui Panels came after some strange judicial reasoning and at the cost of millions to the country. Photo: supplied

Professor Simon Mackenzie and Donna Yates look back on instances of art looting after the ram raid theft of two Gottfried Lindauer paintings from a Parnell art gallery over the weekend

In 1972, in a swamp near Motunui, Taranaki, a local man discovered five buried wooden carved panels, removed them to his home, and subsequently sold them to a visiting English antiquities dealer for $6000. The dealer illegally took them out of New Zealand, ignoring the requirement to apply for an export permit, which he surely would not have received.

In New York in 1973, he sold the panels to the famous collector George Ortiz for US$65,000. Ortiz shipped the panels back to his home in Geneva. A stipulation of this dodgy deal was that Ortiz was not allowed to show the panels to any New Zealand archaeologists for a period of two years following the sale: enough time presumably for any heat to have begun to die down, or so it might be thought. In fact these were the ‘Motunui Panels’, which since the 1970s have been the subject of an ongoing debate that has only recently come to a resolution. They are thought to have originally lined the walls of a pātaka, and were speculated to have been deliberately buried in the swamp for safekeeping by Te Āti Awa around the time of a battle at Motunui in 1822.

The Motunui Panels have an extremely colourful history. Photo: supplied

In 1978 Ortiz’s six year old daughter Graziella was kidnapped and the collector had to pay a ransom of US$2m to secure her return. To fund this, he consigned a selection from his great collection for sale at Sotheby’s. Among the 234 items advertised for sale under the auspices of The George Ortiz Collection of Primitive Works of Art were the Motunui Panels, then valued at £300,000. The New Zealand government objected, and the panels were pulled from the sale shortly before auction day. The sale of the remaining items raised US$2.9m, so Ortiz decided he no longer needed to sell the controversial panels.

There followed a complex and protracted litigation, Attorney General of NZ v Ortiz, in which New Zealand’s claim to have the panels repatriated failed on grounds which those not enthralled by counter-intuitive judicial reasoning tend to find eyeball-rollingly unfair. Illegally exported artefacts were held not to be the property of New Zealand unless they were actually physically seized before leaving the country. In what would surely be an incentive to effective and professional smuggling, the courts decided that this kind of breach of export controls would not be enforced abroad. Tough luck, New Zealand.

Ortiz died in 2013, still the legally recognised owner of these Maori carvings. A delegation from Te Papa and the New Zealand government re-opened discussion with Ortiz’s children, who are reported as having said that their late father had expressed a desire for the panels to return to their country of origin. They agreed to fulfil that wish, at a cost to the New Zealand taxpayer of $4.5m plus legal fees. That sum represents quite some return for this particular supply chain on the original $6000 acquisition price paid to the finder back in the 1970s. 

So it goes in the world of art and antiquities trafficking, where studies have found that looters tend to receive only around one percent of the final international sale price of high-end cultural objects. 

 The Motunui Panels were returned to Te Āti Awa in Taranaki in 2015 and are now conserved and on display in Puke Ariki Museum, New Plymouth.

Sadly this story, while especially racy in places and frustratingly legally hopeless in others, is not unusual in its revelations about the form and function of the global market in looted cultural heritage. Affluent elite collectors around the world provide the driving force for impoverished locals to dig tombs and rip statues and facades from temples in parts of the world where these cultural objects are abundant and insecure. The world of high culture, celebrated in the sensibilities of appreciation for museum collections and traditionally part of the higher status echelons of civilised society, is severely compromised by the polluting influx and circulation of criminally obtained and smuggled objects.

The Lindauer paintings stolen in a ram raid of a Parnell art dealer’s premises in Auckland – estimates for the pair go as high as $1m, but the looters are unlikely to see much of that. Photo: NZ Police

Current media attention in this regard is on the culturally destructive activities of ISIS in Syria and Iraq, but antiquities looting is a more globally widespread problem than most press reports portray. The increasing recognition in research studies and policy briefings of the criminal supply chains that have for decades fed the art market, and which continue to do so, is slowly making it more and more difficult for the market to sustain its normal operating procedure of turning a blind eye to the sources of the objects it deals in. The rarefied world of high status celebration of other cultures through collection, preservation, study and display of their artefacts, is under pressure. Suddenly, visitors to art auctions, dealerships and even public museums are asking difficult questions about how objects came to be in the collection.

Simon Mackenzie is a Professor in the Institute of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, and Donna Yates, Lecturer in Antiquities Trafficking and Art Crime at the University of Glasgow,

Simon Mackenzie is professor of criminology and the acting dean of the Faculty of Humanities and Social Sciences at Te Herenga Waka – Victoria University of Wellington.

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