Puke Ariki

Under the mountain

New Zealand’s most valuable work of art lay waiting in a Taranaki swamp for 150 years. In this condensed extract from her new book, Te Motunui Epa, Rachel Buchanan details what happened when these exquisite carvings awoke, were smuggled across the world, and became entangled in the ransom of a millionaire’s kidnapped daughter.

Written by      

On the eve of the apocalypse, the old people hid the treasure. They said karakia to ward off the terror and panic. Clear heads, steady hands, quick feet, teamwork, a plan. Future-proofing. They dismantled the pātaka and carried the five carved panels to Peropero, a swamp just north of Waitara. They placed the taonga in the gentle arms of mother Earth.

The rangatira carved into the tōtara took one last look at the blistering Taranaki sky before they let go, sank beneath the surface and went to sleep. Power-save mode was fully activated. Snug and safe, our tūpuna dozed in the dark beneath the days and months and years of the 1820s and 1830s when Taranaki was gutted by invaders from the north.

They were waiting for someone to come back to get them, but no one did. The ones who had hidden the epa were killed or captured or had fled. Then, just as people began to return home to Taranaki, a new apocalypse began. The first shots in the war between Taranaki and Britain were fired on 17 March 1860 at Te Kōhia pā, just down the road from where the carvings lay. From there the fighting spread south, along the coast and inland, encompassing the whole province.

He rā pōuri, he rā tukupū pōuri kerekere.These are days of darkness and the moon and stars give no light.

The hiding place at Motunui was forgotten. The soil shifted and the place markers sank. The temporary interment of the panels stretched into something more permanent. The epa were left alone, and the years became decades and the decades became a century and then the century became a century and a half. The carvings travelled on, unchanged, beneath the surface of time—not dead, not extinct, but dormant.

The problem was, the epa were hōhā. It was boring down there in the dark. It was lonely. And they were sick of being in the one spot. They wanted to have a look around—do something! So, our ancestors stretched their tongues, rolled their eyes and got ready to wake up.

The old world was about to meet the new.

[Chapter Break]

The alarm clock went off in late 1971. Summer. Cicadas owned the airwaves. And cows. And the sea. If you lived near the coast, the sea hummed all night like a giant air-conditioning unit.

Cecil Smart, a Pākehā farmer, contracted Alec Fields of Inglewood to dig a ditch through the swamp opposite the Bailey house on Otaraoa Road, Tikorangi. Cecil and his brother Maurice ran dry-stock there. Thirteen years earlier, the brothers had leased the land from the Māori owners, the Skipper family. The block was known as Ngatirahiri 1D2.

The epa lay buried here 30 kilometres north-west of Taranaki Maunga. One theft exposed another: when investigating the taking of the epa, legal research highlighted the uncomfortable fact that this land had itself been taken from Māori following the 1865 war, along with the entire west coast from Whanganui to White Cliffs.

The digger got to work, and in doing so scraped the edge of a buried length of wood, shearing off some of its carved surface.

Speckles of light at first, then a stream, then a flood. The air was a shocking blast of salty cool on our ancestors.

Cecil Smart was aware that Māori artefacts, as he called them, had been found nearby. A carved panel had been discovered there by local man Percy Cole in 1958. Cecil contacted an acquaintance, local carver and souvenir shop owner Melville Manukonga, to see if he would like to come and have a look around.

Cecil showed him the spot where the digger had scraped the carving. Manukonga walked around, felt the carving with his foot, and bent down to examine it. Our tūpuna looked up at him. They blinked. They were so happy to be found, touched. Then Manukonga made a wider, more careful search. In the sides of the drain he saw four more carved panels, which, when placed together, formed the complete wall of a pātaka, or food store.

Manukonga had found the odd stone sinker or broken adze before, but nothing as exciting as the panels. “It was like a gold prospector finding gold,” he later said.

Cecil and Manukonga took the carvings back to Cecil’s place. They washed them, then Manukonga covered them in wet sacks and, with Cecil’s consent, took them back to his house in New Plymouth. He cleaned them again, treated them with a mixture of kerosene and linseed oil, and stored them in his shed. From then on, he regarded the panels as his property. Finders keepers, as they say.

[Chapter Break]

Cecil’s brother Maurice Smart was away fishing when the panels were unearthed, but after he got back, he went over to Manukonga’s place to have a look. The carvings were in a very bad state. “As I say, they looked a mess,” Maurice recalled. “When I saw the wood under the wet sacks, I didn’t think they had any real value.”

Manukonga knew the carvings were very significant. He appreciated the exquisite skill in the strokes, the hours and days and months it would have taken to bring the figures to life from the fine red pine (rimu), the restraint and patience of the artists. He judged that one panel had been made with greenstone tools, because the markings were shallower. This panel had possibly been made for a maihi, a gable of a meeting house, and it was almost certainly made in pre-European times, though it may have been modified to fit with the newer work. Those other panels, with their deep, intertwined serpentine figures, had probably been carved with steel—early on, well before 1840. He took some photos with his Box Brownie and started to invite “interested people” to his shed for viewings.

Among them was Audrey Gale, the chairwoman of the Taranaki Museum Board executive committee. The aim, Manukonga would later say, was to present the taonga to the Taranaki Museum.

At a 1960 swamp dig “Scotty” Kilpatrick (left) and Maurice Tolpine reenact the finding of an epa.
To inspire volunteer diggers, museum staff display three taonga that had surfaced in nearby swamps.

Manukonga had also invited the director of the Taranaki Museum, Rigby Allan, but he did not turn up; apparently Allan had chosen to play bowls instead. Manukonga was so offended that he decided he would not present the panels to the museum after all. He would mount them in his home.

On another occasion, Manukonga invited a local collector, Raymond Joseph Watenburg, to value the panels. Watenburg later recalled that while he was looking at the panels, a man and woman arrived and asked him if he thought the panels were genuine. Watenburg said he thought they were, and that he estimated their worth at about $14,000. He also told them the carvings couldn’t go out of the country; the couple said they were setting up a collection on the East Coast. The man did most of the talking. He was European. The woman was nondescript.

Melville Manukonga did not mention Raymond Watenburg in the account he later gave to investigators. The way he recalled it, a man and woman showed up unannounced one weekend afternoon in late February 1973. He had “no idea” how they had heard about the carvings, as few people knew of their existence. The man was in his early 30s and spoke with an educated English accent. The woman was about the same age but she had an American accent. They drove a new car, something like an Austin Maxi. The woman told Manukonga that her father was a millionaire. They said they were travelling around New Zealand buying artefacts and had heard he had some carvings. They asked to have a look.

[Chapter Break]

The epa were face to face now with a different kind of connoisseur, one whose networks extended well beyond Pākehā scholars, museum staff and fossickers, and out into the world of international dealers and collectors for whom discernment and discretion were the code words that hid other motives. Money was one motive, obviously. But there were other things too—about possession and protection, hoarding and storing, a sort of mooning sentimentality about the lost, the dead, the former, the primitive, the pure, the true.

The man and woman touched our ancestors’ faces and bodies, making a careful appraisal. They were clearly interested, and questioned Manukonga closely. He showed the couple specific parts of the panels that were particularly characteristic of Taranaki carving. Number one: the foreheads of the faces were pointed, like the summit of a mountain. When the panels were placed side by side, they also formed a mountain shape.

In the 1950s, numerous taonga began to surface from Taranaki swamps. Intrigued, Roger Duff, director of Canterbury Museum, organised systematic digs with local hapū of Te Ātiawa. Kaumatua were impressed that Duff addressed them in te reo, and accepted his assurances that the old people had meant for the carvings to be found.

That was one of the major giveaways. The writhing, serpentine figures cut so deeply into the wood were another Taranaki signature. As were the short, curved ridges that cut into the patterns on the eyebrows or mouths of the figures, and the open loops and spirals above the heads. The skill and rarity of Taranaki work was remarkable. In the words of National Museum director John Yaldwyn, “As a style, Taranaki carving has not been followed since the musket wars of the early 19th century.” Past tense: mandatory. Tone: final. Stone-age Taranaki Māori art.

Now, an exhumation, a pulse, heartbeat, colour. A glowing miniature of the mountain on the lounge-room floor.

Touched, the figures looked startled, puckered, wrinkled, quizzical, intertwined, like birds or serpents trapped in wood. The arms and legs flowed in and out of each other, and in the central panel, a three-fingered hand reached out of a mouth.

Like a strand of DNA made from wood. A double helix with tongues.

Like eels seething in a black creek.

An encyclopedia in another language.

An index finger, pointing to the future and the past. Look! Taonga tuku iho.

The epa watched the three people from many angles.

They scanned the people’s faces. The man and woman were keen but not too keen. Nonchalance was a good mask. Manukonga was hopeful, wary.

The man asked Manukonga if he was interested in selling the panels, and Manukonga said he was not. The man asked him to think about it and said he would contact him again.

Two or three days later, the man once again got in touch. He offered to buy the panels for $6,000. The average annual income in New Zealand at that time was less than $5,000. Manukonga and his wife Frances talked it over and decided to sell. The next day the man and woman came back. The man wrapped the panels in sacking and put them in the boot of his car. They paid Manukonga in cash, as per his request. “Whilst I counted the money I asked the two persons whether they intended to take the said panels out of New Zealand and they assured me they did not,” he would later recall.

[Chapter Break]

By April, the epa were in an apartment on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. The touching continued. The looking. The calculating.

The telephone calls to interested parties. Swiss-based collector George Ortiz flew in to New York for a viewing.

The epa met him on 21 April 1973. They let their eyes bore into him.

Then they made their eyes pop at him, pūkana style. Then they shrugged. What now, wee fellow?

Tohunga whakairo Thomas Heberley (Te Ātiawa), left, directs carpenters who are reassembling Te Awhi pātaka at the Dominion Museum at Pukeahu in 1936. Pātaka contained the tribe’s delicacies, as well as seeds and taonga such as mere, korowai and kahu kiwi. They embody manaakitanga: exquisite thoughtfulness towards the needs of visitors.

George Ortiz was not much taller than the highest panel. One of his famous friends, British writer Bruce Chatwin, called him Mighty Mouse. He was a dapper dresser, with dark eyes, dark skin and a cap of black hair. He was also the possessor of an 18th-century mansion in Geneva and an ebullient, obsessive spirit—and primed to appreciate this masterpiece of Taranaki art. Ortiz prided himself on his eye, his gift, the way he could perceive what artists had put into their work.

Our tūpuna, so complex and beautiful, hit him with an incredible force. His response was emotional, visceral and instantaneous. It was FOMO at an epic scale. Two days later, George Ortiz agreed to a purchase price of US$65,000. The vendor admitted he had removed the carvings from New Zealand without a permit—but even so, he was still the owner, he held the title and he would pass that title on.

All in good faith. They called it primitive art. Or Oceanic art, to be nice.

By 11 May 1973, our tūpuna were on a plane to Switzerland. From six feet under to 30,000 feet up, Taranaki’s envoys had been dispatched.

[Chapter Break]

George Ortiz was an interesting man. He had an interesting whānau. Their ancestral homeland was Bolivia and the ancestral mountains were Los Andes. These days Ortiz lived in Switzerland, but all his stories led back to his grandfather, the one and only Don Simón I. Patiño.

Simón Patiño was born in Bolivia in 1860 to a family of indigenous Andean, Bolivian and Spanish descent. He started out as a clerk in a mining supply shop in Cochabamba in the Andes, until a customer paid off a debt by giving him a deed to a tin mine. Patiño went off to work his mine on Llallagua mountain and a few years later, in 1900, he discovered the richest tin deposit in the world.

Taranaki gave the good volcanic soil that grew the grass that fed the cows that made the milk and then the money for the Pākehā farmers. That inheritance was stolen. Without ancestral land, all Taranaki mokopuna struggled. The only thing the old people had to offer was kōrero, but you can’t eat stories.

Patiño’s mountain, on the other hand, yielded up that malleable white metal that made cake tins, soldiers’ helmets, plates, tins for food of all kinds. After the First World War, the Wall Street Journal reported, he made money on the sale “of almost every product that used tinfoil in the US, from gum to cigarettes”. But his indigenous South American ancestry meant he remained an outsider. He may have been one of the richest men in the world, but the elite Social Club in Cochabamba, Bolivia’s second city, would not admit him. In 1924 Patiño left Bolivia for good, moving first to Paris, then to New York.

George Ortiz considered himself the world’s greatest collector of ancient art. He wrote, “To a Westerner the art of the Pacific, particularly that of Polynesia, is like an escape, a search for purity and truth, a renewal.” By the 1990s, the epa and similar cases meant that questions of provenance—and the lack thereof—had begun to sour the prestige once attached to collecting.

The Don’s descendants lived and worked in Europe; many married into royalty.

In their exile, they loved to shop—all of them did. They collected art, silver, ceramics, paintings, furniture, books, manuscripts, pre-Columbian objects.

George began collecting at 17: little objects, small bronzes. Then in 1949, at age 22, he went to Greece, and it was here that he made his first special purchase.
“I hoped that by acquiring ancient Greek objects I would acquire the spirit behind them,” he recalled.

He expanded into Etruscan, Sardinian and Roman art, art from the start of the Byzantine civilisation, then African and Oceanic art. In about 1971 he travelled to New Zealand.

With collecting, George found a way to plug into permanence, pull up the roots of other people’s cultures and plant them in his adopted backyard in Europe.

[Chapter Break]

On 11 May 1973, the epa arrived at Ortiz’s home near Geneva. Ortiz was excited to have our tūpuna with him, but the love affair was private. As part of the condition of sale, he had agreed not to show the carvings to New Zealand archaeologists or any other third parties for two years. A most unusual caveat and one that must have raised an alarm for a collector as experienced as he was.

The home he shared with Catherine and their children was a mansion set amid acres of forest, yet it was only minutes from a street that sold watches and diamonds. Inside the house there were many beautiful, beautiful things. And downstairs there was a room that was set up like a museum. It had the glass cases and the special lighting. It was extremely impressive.

The epa were shocked to see how many relatives were already there. Our tūpuna recognised relatives in the masks and ancestral figures from Melanesia, the Easter Islands, the Austral Islands, Rarotonga, Cook Islands and Aotearoa, specifically Whakatōhea. Some of the rangatira were in a bad way. The lights had nearly gone out. It was the homesickness that did it. The hurt. The boredom too. Not much going on over there in Geneva. No oratory to speak of, just the whispered chat between all of the ancestors. They liked to razz each other up. Nothing like an insult to keep the pilot light flickering.

The epa stayed with Ortiz, in the family home, for the next four years. They enjoyed the company of the other taonga, the sounds of the children in the big house, the beauty of the forest and the lake.

Then the buzzing hit hard. Everyone felt it.

George and Catherine emitted this sound like the wind on a wire, and the sound went into their bodies and it damaged every nerve and cell. Right down deep. Cicadas in their blood, behind their eyeballs, inside their mouths. The metal claw of a ditch digger scraped across their faces, and a terrible black light flooded in.


Their daughter was taken. Darling Graziella, only five years old, named for her grandmother, was in the back seat of the family station wagon, ready to go to kindergarten, when two men attacked the driver and snatched her. The kidnappers got a message to Ortiz, demanding a ransom of US$2 million. If he spoke with the police, his daughter would die.

The epa covered their ears to block out the buzzing horror.

George and Catherine Ortiz went on television to plead for their daughter’s life. “Graziella is a delightful little girl, an innocent little girl who is life itself. Please don’t let her suffer too much.”

Although Ortiz was a wealthy man, he did not have the sum demanded to hand. In desperation, he had to ask his mother Graziella for a loan of the $2 million. It was not easy to do that. But when the ransom was paid the kidnappers left little Graziella beside the Geneva–Lausanne motorway. A barkeeper found the child there and returned her to her parents.

A press photograph from 18 October 1977 shows Graziella on Catherine’s hip, small hands clasped around her mother’s neck. Catherine is smiling at the camera and the child is smiling too, slightly. George is staring at his wife and daughter, everything stretched thin; on his face an expression without a name.

He had to find a way to pay his mother back. His treasures, her money.

Ortiz took a walk through his whare. He visited the epa and the other old people, and they agreed to help out. They would be sold at auction to the highest bidders.

[Chapter Break]

Our tūpuna were on the move again. Next stop, Sotheby’s headquarters, in London. Everyone was aflutter. The chairman of Sotheby’s, Peter Wilson, decided to take the auction himself. The 243 works, including the epa, were advertised as the finest collection of primitive art in private hands. The event would constitute a “heartbreaking sale” for their owner.

The epa—“a Maori wood store front”—were the first item in the list of treasures at the front of the catalogue. Provenance: “Formerly the property of Mr. Robert Riggs, Philadelphia, who parted with them in 1966. He had originally purchased them in an antique shop in New-London, Conn., around 1935.” The New York Times described the epa as the prize item in the sale. They were valued at £300,000.

The epa played along, for Ortiz’s sake, but there was an opportunity here to send some other messages too. Get their faces on the television, wake up some people back home.

[Chapter Break]

Ron Lambert, the new director of the Taranaki Museum, met a man at a party who told him he’d seen a clip on TV about a Sotheby’s auction of treasures from Oceania. The man described the epa’s startled faces looking out from the screen.

He had seen those carvings, or some very like them, in a photograph on his predecessor’s desk. He made some calls. Bureaucratic wheels began to turn. It seemed the carvings had been excavated from a Waitara swamp only recently, not decades ago as the auction catalogue claimed, and illegally smuggled out of the country without an export licence. The matter was referred to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

On 26 June, New Zealand stepped in decisively. A writ seeking an injunction to withdraw the panels from auction was issued in the High Court of Justice, London.

The writ said the carvings were the property of the New Zealand government. It ordered the carvings be returned to the Crown. New Zealand’s Historic Articles Act 1962 said it was unlawful for any person to remove any historic article from New Zealand, knowing it to be an historic article, without an export permit. If an article was removed in breach of the Act, it was forfeit to the Crown.

Private investigators were dispatched to find the couple who bought the epa from Manukonga. In Washington, diplomats found no trace of the mysterious Mr Riggs who had purportedly sold the carvings to George Ortiz in 1966.

At Sotheby’s, our tūpuna sat on the paepae, eagerly awaiting further developments.

The Taranaki way was no fuss, no growling. Just present yourself quietly.

Be there. Be an obstacle in the path of the unwanted thing. Or person. Or event. War x 2. Colonisation. Muru me te raupatu. Confiscation and marginalisation. Those things happened in the name of the Crown, and now the Crown was speaking for Taranaki, in the name of Taranaki. It just didn’t realise it yet.

Nine days until the auction.

Okea ururoatia. Never say die.

From left: Glen Skipper, Lisa Ward, Rhonda Paku and Hemi Sundgren usher the tūpuna into Puke Ariki. While the epa returned with public fanfare, it’s still unclear how they were smuggled overseas. One theory is that the epa were painted red and smuggled out disguised as replicas.

The New Zealand Government sought the return of the Motunui Epa via injunction (1978), legal action in the High Court of Justice, London (1981) , the Court of Appeal (1982) and the House of Lords (1983). These failed legal actions led to reform of New Zealand’s legislation to protect taonga, and to New Zealand finally becoming a signatory to international conventions to protect cultural property. World-wide, concern over the case contributed directly to the adoption of stronger national and international protection laws.

With legal action exhausted, years of negotiation with the Ortiz whānau finally led to the epa’s safe return in 2014 for $4.5 million. These tūpuna, which are also New Zealand’s most valuable artwork, now reside beneath Taranaki Maunga at Puke Ariki museum.

This text is an extract from Rachel Buchanan’s new book Te Motunui Epa, published by Bridget Williams Books.

More by