The collection of Maori artefacts sold by John Nicholson’s – together with a letter detailing their shipment in 1837. The shell inlaid hei tiki took the top price of £16,000.

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In fact, not long after that windfall sale the auctioneers were contacted by the owner of an archive of small Maori artefacts with an unbroken provenance dating back 180 years.

The collection amounted to the remnants of a package sent back to England from New Zealand by the son of John King, a missionary who headed to New Zealand in 1814 under the direction of Samuel Marsden, the senior Anglican minister in New South Wales. King and his wife Hannah stayed in the new territory, going on to have 12 children.

Like father, like son, Philip Hansen King (1813-80) also became a missionary in Tauranga, later buying land in Te Puna Bay from Maori chiefs on November 6, 1834. The purchase price was recorded as ‘4 Blankets, 2 Iron Pots, 4 lbs. Tobacco, 4 Hoes and 2 doz. Pipes'.

Colonial record

Three years later he sent a shipment to James Blea, a cabinetmaker and upholsterer of Swerford, a village near Chipping Norton. A letter dated May 18, 1837, discovered by descendants of the King family when the decision was taken to consign the items for auction, discusses both its contents and the hardships of colonial life.

King wrote in vivid detail about a civil war in The Bay of Islands a full eight years before the First Maori War.

“I wish peace could be restored but such is not likely to be until they have a regular battle if their mode of fighting deserves the name,” he wrote. “For though the two parties have exchanged thousands of shot yet they have taken good care to keep wide enough apart so that up to this time not more than six have received mortal wounds.”

Of the items listed in the letter, Nicholson’s offered 23 for sale on October 5. Together they took over £50,000.

Contributing most to the total were two early 19th century green nephrite hei tiki, the pendants worn around the neck by men and women of high rank, both as ornaments and symbols of authority. Hanging close to the heads of prestigious owners was thought to imbue them with sacred power, or tapu.

Value variations

Prices for hei tiki can vary hugely dependent upon age, quality, colour, size, form and decoration. The example offered at Woolley & Wallis the previous month, unusually large at more than 5in (13cm) across, had sold for £25,000.

The more desirable of the two at Nicholson’s was 4in (10cm) high and set with shell eyes. Estimated at £4000-6000, it attracted bidding from the US and Australia before selling to the latter at £18,000. The other, 5in (12cm) high and estimated at £3000-5000, took £6000 from the same buyer. The consignment also included 17 separately lotted bone fishhooks and lures, or matau, some inlaid with mirrored glass or iridescent shell. These sold for prices of between £280 and £1100 and together totalled just below £8000.

Matau are often ingenious and beautifully constructed – the huge variety of hooks designed to mimic and attract different kinds of fish.

Pa kahawai, for example, are trolling lures designed to attract and hook large surface-feeding fish, such as kahawai (sea trout) or barracouta. They are typically constructed using the highly reflective paua shell (a large abalone, only found in the waters of New Zealand) joined with a bone barb by a flax fibre cord. A good example, 4½in (12cm) long, retaining possibly the original fibre cord, sold at £750 (estimate £700-1000).

Personal adornment

A group of three smaller carved bone pa kahawai, designed for hooking sharks and bound tightly again with flax, took £800. Three green nephrite ear pendants or kapeu with curved tips, the longest 6in (15cm) long, sold at £3000 (£2000-3000), while another object of personal adornment, a small hair comb or heru mapara made of separate wooden teeth lashed together with flax fibre, sold at £1250 (£1000-1500).

As early as the late 1700s, the Maori had shown European visitors how New Zealand flax could be prepared to make rope and other useful items which led to a booming trade in flax fibre, and a local flax-stripping industry that continued until the 1830s. Two balls of twine from this period, each over 10ft (3m) in length, sold at £340.

This plumb consignment encouraged other vendors to sell related items. A rare Gilbert Islands wood cloth beater, with carved crosshatch and other line decoration and of superb colour, took £1700.

A pair of finely engraved scrimshaw horn powder flasks of New Zealand interest sold for £3600 (estimate £3000-4000). One depicted William King and his wife – King tattooed with Ta moko and holding a war club and with mythical sea scenes – and the other scenes of Maori dancers.

“You won’t find another pair, I promise you,” said auctioneer John Nicholson as the gavel fell.