Once considered to be a "genuine sculpture" this swamp kauri log exported to China is now the subject of investigation. Photo: Supplied

A log Te Uru Rākau defined as art last December is now just a log. Its export to China has been referred to the agency’s compliance team.

Exporters found to be in breach of the Forests Act face a fine of up to $200,000.

A Supreme Court judgment last year placed Te Uru Rākau, the Ministry for Primary Industry forestry arm, in the role of deciding what is art and what is a log.

To be legally exported swamp kauri must be in a finished form, with all value added in New Zealand before export. For years, the Ministry of Primary Industry’s interpretation of the Forest Act allowed slabs of rough sawn kauri to be sold as “rusticated table tops” – and trunks of trees with surface carvings to be sold as “temple poles”.

Supreme Court judges did not agree surface carvings added value to logs and noted: “ … a log cannot be a finished or manufactured indigenous timber product unless the work on it is so extensive that it has lost its identity as a log. Surface carving or decoration, however elaborate, is unlikely to cause such a loss of identity.

“Merely labelling a log a totem or temple pole does not change this.”

It also found slabs of wood are not table tops saying: “The use as a table could not be discerned from the product itself.”

If it looks like a log, it’s a log.

Barely a month after the Supreme Court ruling, Kahui-based swamp kauri exporter Nelson Parker gambled on an export of a sculpture. 

The log was lightly carved and a fissure was filled with resin and inlaid with broken paua shell. Parker did not seek prior approval for the export. Seeking approval is not compulsory, but if the export was later found to be illegal he faced a fine.

In July he told Newsroom: “I knew what was at stake, I knew there was possibly serious consequences, but I was sick and tired of all this bureaucracy. We were given the green light and then it turned red.”

He said from certain angles the finished item looked nothing like a log. 

“That is an art form and it’s a sculpture. It’s not a log, it’s a sculpture.”

In a breakdown supplied to Te Uru Rākau Parker listed 400 artist hours at $40 per hour, as well as 600 litres of resin at $20 per litre. Other costs included sand paper, oil, and paua shell.

Images from Te Uru Rākau’s original decision document of the resin inlay
Images from Te Uru Rākau’s original decision document of the surface carving. 

The export sparked a flurry of activity with Te Uru Rākau’s public servants grappling with the question ‘what is art?’. The carvings on the log were shallow and similar to those on logs which the Supreme Court had found to be inadequate. Was it a sculpture, or was it a log which could easily be sanded down and further processed in China?

Two experts from the Ministry for Culture and Heritage were consulted on the nature of art versus log, but were not shown any photographs of the log in question. Staff from the Auckland Art Gallery and Te Papa were also consulted but said they did not feel it was possible to provide a guideline for determining if something is a work of art.

A document shows the decision arrived at in February by Te Uru Rākau was the log is a “genuine sculpture”.

“The sculpture has undergone manufacturing to such an extent that transformed it from its raw form and constructed it into a sculpture that has natural characteristics.”

The Northland Environmental Protection Society, which had fought for nine years for the Supreme Court ruling was shocked. Fiona Furrell called it a case of “public servants gone mad” and said Te Uru Rākau was making a mockery of the court’s decision.

“You don’t get a statue that looks like that. It’s a log. One hundred percent log.”

The society disputed the decision. This led to Te Uru Rākau reconsidering its conclusion.

Almost a year since the export, and after advice from an independent panel, the head of Te Uru Rākau, Julie Collins, agrees with Furrell. It’s a log.

In a letter, Collins said the “item has not lost its identity as a log” and the carvings had not been  “sufficiently transformative to have altered the item’s essence as a log”.

She said the export “likely breaches the export regulations of the Forests Act”.

“I have referred the matter to the Director – Compliance Services, Ministry for Primary Industries.”

A decision regarding prosecution is likely to be made next month.

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