The story of five carved tōtara panels once hidden in a Taranaki swamp before being stolen and taken to New York, Geneva and London is the subject of a new book launched in New Plymouth.
Rather than a conventional history treatise, in Te Motunui Epa, author Dr Rachel Buchanan tells the panels’ story through they eyes of the taonga itself.
Decorated with distinctive serpentine figures, the pātaka or storehouse panels were carved in the late 1700s and buried in a swamp north of Waitara in the early 1800s as Te Aitawa hid their most precious taonga from Waikato raiders.
Taranaki Te Atiawa uri Dr Rachel Buchanan’s book begins 150 years later.
“I see them as a powerful collection of tupuna and the book I’ve very much written it from their perspective. I’ve tried to see, tried to think, how they would respond to all these events.
“The book I’ve written starts in 1971 and it’s really looking at our taonga tupuna as having been asleep for a very long time and looking around at this new world and what they made of this new world.”
It’s a turbulent history which saw the Epa become part of the George Ortiz Collection. Based in Greece, it is thought to be one of the the most important collections of ancient art in private hands
“They’re illegally sold in Taranaki, illegally smuggled out of the country and then fall into the hands of George Ortiz,” Buchanan said.
“There’s a whole chapter that’s an encounter that really tries to imagine what the Epa would think meeting this whānau, what they are like, how they got their money, and trying to make connections because that’s the way the Māaori world works.”
Buchanan also draws on conventional history and based the book on records unearthed through an Official Information Act request and meetings with hapū and iwi.
Te Motunui Epa is also a story of remarkable coincidences.
One involves Taranaki historian Ron Lambert.
Familiar with the Epa from pictures he had seen after it emerged from the swamp, he spotted it up for auction at Sotheby’s in London in 1978.
He quickly called Sotheby’s and discovered there was confusion about the panels’ history.
“Then I described them and he went silent for a while and then he said ‘how did you know?’
“I said they were in New Plymouth in 1972, and he said ‘but the catalogue says they were picked up in the 1930s in America’ and I said ‘well we’ll have to sort that out.”
The government was successful in stopping the auction but after lengthy legal battle failed to get them returned to New Zealand.
It was not until after George Ortiz died in 2013 that a deal was finally struck with his family for the Epa to be repatriated to Taranaki.
Te Atiawa iwi member Peter Moeahu was part of a delegation that went to Europe to negotiate with the Ortiz family.
“When we arrived over there they welcomed us into their mansion and showed us around all of the other taonga throughout their home and treated us like members of their family, so before we left we invited them to come over and join us at the Treaty settlement signing which they did.”
Moeahu reckons timing had everything to do with the Epa’s eventual return.
“We were lucky because successive governments had tried to retrieve the Epa and they weren’t able to and that’s why I say we were just in the right place at the right time.”
The New Zealand government eventually paid the Ortiz family $4.5 million for the Epa in 2014 and the panels were returned to Te Atiawa the following year.
Keith Holswich, a Ngāti Rāhiri hapū member in whose rohe the Epa was buried, is credited with having return of the panels included in Te Atiawa Treaty Settlement.
“All the Te Aitawa hapū were asked to come up with a cultural redress package. We sat down and on the top of the list of what we wanted was the return of those panels.
“And so our cultural redress package had a photo of those panels on the front, never ever believing we were going to get them back.”
He still got goosebumps when he viewed Te Motunui Epa.
“It’s just as emotional to me now as when the Epa first came through that door all those years ago.
“The work that Rachel has put into [the book] is amazing. She’s been passionate about the whole thing and very compassionate towards the hapu as well she’s always come back to us for advice.”
Holswich did not bear a grudge towards the Ortiz family, who originally paid US$65,000 for the panels, and hosted his son at Waitara.
“A billionaire millionaire guy, family. He came out here he was very humble he wanted to meet us.
“We took him out for dinner at a house and ate leftovers from the lunch we had for the Treaty settlement.
“He wanted to see the site [where the Epa was found]. He was always humble with everything he said and I’ve got all the time in the world for the guy.
“Okay, sure he’s got $4.5 million for his family, but he is a very humble guy and I can see the Epa any day I want.”
The Motunui Epa are on permanent display at the Puke Ariki Museum.
Their story is credited with having changed practices, understanding and international law on the protection and repatriation of stolen cultural treasures.