In late 2009, Otago University art historian Associate Professor Mark Stocker was innocently asked for advice on a historic bronze statuette of the celebrated founder of Canterbury, John Robert Godley, which was for sale in a London antique shop.
The London art dealer had offered the statuette, sitting in a shop window in Covent Garden, London, to the Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetu for a considerable price, and the gallery sought Dr Stocker’s advice as an expert on Victorian sculpture. The same Godley figure but in statue form was toppled in the February earthquake in Cathedral Square, Christchurch.
Dr Stocker was asked whether the sculpture, attributed to Pre-Raphaelite sculptor Thomas Woolner, was authentic; and to establish its ownership history.
What transpired is an intriguing tale of major significance to both New Zealand and the United Kingdom, raising serious questions about how safe historical treasures entrusted to museum collections can ever be.
Dr Stocker became one of a small informal team of New Zealand arts professionals whose detective work subsequently found that the bronze could be traced to the collection of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol.
The piece had been donated by the people of Christchurch in 1939 to the Imperial Institute (subsequently the Commonwealth Institute), which, when it closed its gallery in 2002, entrusted its collection of New Zealand and other nations’ historical artifacts to the new British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol.
The Patron, the Princess Royal, opened the new Museum with the promise that it would address the 500-year history of Britain’s colonial past.
Dr Stocker says more questions must be raised as to how, and why, the statuette had found its way to a London antique dealer on the open market.
“It turned out to be one of a number of art treasures and taonga no longer held at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum. This included a Rotorua/Ngati Tarawhai carved pare or lintel (c. 1880), which was subsequently located up for auction at Dunbar Sloane’s in Auckland in September last year,” he says.
Before the auction, Dr Stocker sought legal advice and the New Zealand Police were informed. However, the sale went through and the lintel was sold to a private buyer.
Another item in a dealer’s premises, which had been “hastily withdrawn” and returned to its rightful owners before it could be sold, was a miniature pataka carved by Jacob Heberley, the gift of premier Richard Seddon and his Cabinet to King Edward VII on his Coronation in 1902. The pataka had been loaned by the Royal Collection to the Imperial Institute and its successors.
The Guardian and Independent newspapers in the UK recently reported that the Museum director has left his post. Dr Stocker says a Police investigation into the “missing” exhibits will be accompanied by an audit of the museum’s catalogue and holdings.
He believed the story was sufficiently important to share with staff and students of the renowned School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, on a visit there early this year. And he admits to feeling a sense of “fascinated horror” at the debacle.
“I was offended for the sake of Rotorua and Te Ati Awa Maori because of the qualities they have brought both technically and spiritually to their carvings.
“Those qualities have been disrespected with the sale of the carved pare and the attempted sale of the pataka. In turn, the Godley statuette, which turns out to have been after Thomas Woolner as it is a posthumous cast, represented the gift of the Canterbury people to the Imperial Institute – and it was being offered back to them – at a price.
“Both Maori art and European art are of course constituent parts of New Zealand’s history, and both these areas are implicated in this story. Our heritage is being trampled on in the process,” he says.
He remains “very interested” that the Trustees of the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum do not appear to have been adequately informed of the sale process and the way that the integrity of its collection appears to have been compromised.
Once the audit, the police investigation and possible judicial processes are complete, Dr Stocker intends to publish his paper in the University of Leicester’s peer-reviewed journal Museum and Society. It will be co-authored with Ken Hall, Dr Stocker’s former student at the University of Canterbury, who is now a Curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery.