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Motunui Panels returned to New Zealand

4 July 2014

Motunui Panels returned to New Zealand

The famed Motunui Panels - five late 18th century carved pataka panels which comprise a masterpiece of Maori art - have returned to New Zealand after more than 40 years, Treaty for Waitangi Negotiations Minister Christopher Finlayson announced today.

“The Motunui Panels are objects of huge cultural and historical significance as well as being extraordinary works of art,” Mr Finlayson said. “Their voyage back to Aotearoa is a historic occasion for Te Atiawa, the iwi of the Taranaki, and New Zealand.”

The panels are intended to be used for cultural redress as part of the Treaty settlement process.

The Motunui Panels are five panels forming the end wall of a pataka (store house) that were recovered from a swamp near Motunui in Taranaki in 1972. The panels were carved before 1820 by Te Ātiawa artists, and were most likely hidden in the swamp during a period of inter-tribal wars for safe keeping.

The Panels illustrate the ariki (chiefly) lines of Taranaki, depicting tribal unity and mana, and have a known whakapapa. In 1984 the panels were described by the then director of the National Museum as “the single most exciting unit of the now extinct Taranaki carving style” and a “true masterpiece of Maori art”.

Shortly after their discovery in 1972 the panels were illegally exported out of the country, without the knowledge of the government. They were later sold, under falsified documents of provenance, to a private collector, George Ortiz.

Successive governments made efforts to secure the return of the Panels, in 1978, 1983, 1985, 1995, 2005 and 2007.

The New Zealand government sought to have the panels returned in a 1982 case before the House of Lords in London. While the case was unsuccessful, Lord Denning ended his decision with a firm statement that governments should pursue an international convention to allow the retrieval of works of art of historical and cultural importance. The case led directly to the Commonwealth Government Secretariat Scheme for the protection of cultural heritage and, ultimately, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

In March, the Ministry of Justice’s Deputy Secretary Treaty, Kevin Kelly, and Te Papa’sKaihautū, Arapata Hakiwai, travelled to Geneva to meet the family and negotiate the return of the panels for use in Treaty settlements. The panels arrived back in the country last week.

“The Ortiz family entered into good faith negotiations with the New Zealand government, honouring the memory of their father George Ortiz and his desire to see the panels returned to New Zealand, in reaching this historic agreement,” Mr Finlayson said.

They will be stored by the Crown at Te Papa, the Museum of New Zealand, in Wellington for the time being.


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