An important Maori treasure was withdrawn from Te Papa by two members of Wellington's prominent Love family so they could sell it.
Peter Love has confirmed that he withdrew the carved prow called Te Tauihu Waka - thought to be about 250 years old - so he and brother Michael could sell it through auctioneers Dunbar Sloane.
The auction house valued it at up to $400,000, calling it "the most important and historical taonga treasure that Dunbar Sloane has ever been offered to auction".
It was described in the auction catalogue as being from the hapu of Wi Hapi Pakau. It was lent to the Dominion Museum, later to become Te Papa, by Wi Hapi Pakau Love in 1963.
A spokesman for Arts, Culture and Heritage Minister Chris Finlayson said the prow was loaned to Te Papa, and was never part of the museum's collection. It had consistently been in legal ownership of the Love family since 1963.
He said Te Papa unsuccessfully asked Peter Love to reconsider withdrawing the item, and the museum was unaware he wanted to sell it until contacted by Dunbar Sloane.
A Te Papa spokeswoman confirmed the taonga "was on deposit at Te Papa and it was not part of Te Papa's collections".
"It was released last year on October 30 to the family who deposited it."
But some local Maori say such a taonga has tribal ownership and does not belong to individuals.
"They don't own it. The tribe owns it," Waiwhetu kaumatua Teri Puketapu said.
"Tribally it [prow carving] is an ancient treasure . . . Normally such things are held by a person described as a kaitiaki [guardian] . . . who has responsibilities to the tribe to look after that item."
The carving, thought to date from the time of Captain Cook's voyages to New Zealand about 1760 to 1790, was to have been sold at auction on Friday.
However, it was withdrawn, and is now likely to be sold privately - with Puke Ariki museum in New Plymouth an interested buyer.
Wi Hapi Pakau had direct links with hapu in Taranaki, as well as Waiwhetu and probably Waikanae, Puketapu said.
Puke Ariki director Kelvin Day said he became aware that the prow had been withdrawn from the auction last week and that the "vendor, through Dunbar [Sloane Sr], wished to explore the possibility of Puke Ariki purchasing the item".
Whether that happened was dependent on several factors, including whether "external funding" could be secured, and to gauge "the feelings of the wider Love whanau", he said.
Puketapu said the fact the prow was from a war canoe suggested it may well have been involved in tribal battles.
"Once you have a canoe of that nature, it wouldn't have belonged to one person, but to the hapu or the tribe."
It should be returned to Te Papa, he said. "It's probably the safest place for it."
- The Dominion Post