New Zealand huia birds in a case

A cased pair of extinct New Zealand huia by James E Whiting, London, £220,000 at Tennants.

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Numerous bidders from around the world competed at the September 8 sale for the huia, which were eventually sold to a private individual bidding via thesaleroomcom.

The estimate was £15,000-25,000.

The price in North Yorkshire is thought to be an auction record for a single piece of taxidermy – beating the previous high of $210,000 (around £170,000) for Roy Roger’s horse Trigger at Christie’s in New York in 2010.

For many years, a specimen of the great auk bought in 1971 by the Icelandic Museum of National History for £9000 held the auction record for the most expensive stuffed bird ever sold.

Stuffed in London

Mounted by ‘James Whiting, Naturalist’, of 19 Heath Street, Hampstead, the male and female are presented perched on a branch and surrounded by hummingbirds, rocks and foliage. They came for sale from a private client who bought them in an antiques shop in the Gloucester 43 years ago.

The shop also had a cased Passenger Pigeon for sale at the same time (another extinct species) but he decided on the pair of huia. The case was in excellent condition with almost no fading to the plumage and little sign of moth and insect damage.

Even before the arrival in New Zealand of Europeans, huias (a type of wattlebird) were rare birds confined to remote areas and mountain ranges of the south-east of the country’s North Island.

Huia were deemed a taonga (sacred species) by the Maori and their feathers used for the personal adornment of the highest social ranks.

The tail feathers with broad white bands across the tips were kept in the finely carved hanging treasure boxes called waka huia.

Tragically hunted close to extinction to supply specimens to wealthy collectors and museums in the Victorian era, the last confirmed sighting of a huia was in 1907 and the last credible sighting in 1924.

The birds had the greatest difference in bill shape between the male and female of any species; the female’s beak being long, thin and arched downwards whilst the smaller male’s was short and stout.

Dead reckoning

Extinct species carry a particular cachet with collectors of taxidermy although the sale of this case was not without controversy in New Zealand. There had been calls from members of the Maori community for the New Zealand government to step in.

Tennants’ specialist Robbie Bright would not be drawn n the nationality of the buyer, although he said: “As you can imagine there was significant interest from buyers in New Zealand, private bidders and institutions alike, who certainly tried their utmost to secure this rare and wonderful case.”

The last mounted huia offered at auction are thought to be the two pairs and a single bird sold in June 2010 as part of Bonhams’ sale of the Owston collection in Sydney, Australia. They took Aus$30,000 each and the single bird sold for Aus$8000.