A relic from Captain Cook's time that almost became scrap metal may find a new home in a proposed shipwreck museum, after the Sunday Star-Times tracked it down to an unlikely location. Tony Wall reports on a lost treasure, found and redeemed.
It began with Auckland councillor Mike Lee, a French history buff and chairman of the council's heritage advisory panel.
Lee was outraged, he told the Star-Times, after discovering that attempts had been made to sell a more than 200-year-old anchor from a French sailing ship privately.
According to the Art + Object auction catalogue from 2009, the anchor was possibly one of three cut loose from Jean François de Surville's ship the St Jean Baptiste during a storm in Doubtless Bay, Northland, in 1769.
Or the 1.5 tonne, 4.65m-high wrought iron anchor might be one of those let go in similar circumstances by Marc Joseph Marion du Fresne in Spirits Bay, Northland, in 1772, the catalogue suggested. The asking price was $10,000-$20,000.
If the information was correct, the anchor would be among the oldest relics of early European contact - two of the de Surville anchors are in Te Papa in Wellington and Te Ahu Heritage Museum in Kaitaia, having been retrieved from Doubtless Bay by Kelly Tarlton in 1974.
The third is thought to remain in situ.
As an item of national significance, the anchor should not be sold privately, Lee said, and he informed the French embassy of his concerns.
Lee also contacted the Ministry of Culture and Heritage to ask what protections were in place for such artefacts, and was dismayed by the answer.
"What I find pretty outrageous is that when I rang up the ministry they said, ‘Is it a Maori object?' and I said, ‘No, it's European' . . . they said ‘sorry we can't do anything about that'."
David Butts, the ministry's manager of heritage operations, confirmed to the Star-Times that, under the Protected Objects Act, a boat built by Europeans did not have the protections an old waka would, such as being able to be held only by a registered collector.
Lee said it was a "wild west" situation and the act should be amended to protect all historic objects.
The Star-Times contacted Art + Object's managing director Hamish Coney, who said the staff member who dealt with the anchor had since left and he didn't know much about it - only that it hadn't sold back in 2009.
Asked what checks Art + Object had done to confirm whether the anchor was in fact a de Surville or du Fresne, Coney said "we are required to exercise our judgment as to the veracity of anecdotal or verbal history" and the catalogue made it clear these histories were unsubstantiated.
He would not provide the name of the vendor for privacy reasons, but agreed to email him.
Several weeks passed.
Finally, the Star-Times received a call from Eric Morrow, a retired scrap metal dealer from the tiny Kaipara Harbour settlement of Port Albert. Yes, he still had the anchor, and yes, he'd be happy for us to see it.
W HO BETTER to take with us than Keith Gordon, vice-president of the Underwater Heritage Group and a member of the Maritime Archaeological Association?
Gordon was just back from a dive expedition to Spirits Bay, where side-scan sonar and magnetometers were used to search for the elusive du Fresne anchors.
He and his underwater heritage colleagues have spent tens of thousands of dollars of their own money in the hunt for the five du Fresne anchors.
They are also lobbying for a heads of agreement with the Historic Places Trust, so that in certain circumstances experts can recover and preserve items from underwater archaeological sites without having to get a permit from the trust.
Gordon said the law was murky.
"The ultimate authority responsible for all shipwrecks, believe it or not, are the police."
We arrived at Morrow's property with a view of the Kaipara, and there was the anchor, cemented into the ground by his drive. It was in good condition, having been regularly treated with rust-inhibiting oil.
Morrow explained that he spotted the anchor in a scrap metal yard in Auckland about 15 years ago and offered to buy it. "They didn't know what to do with it. It would have been melted down if it wasn't for me."
All the vendors knew was that it had once been used to anchor the Tiri, Radio Hauraki's "pirate" ship, and before that was used on barges at Marsden Point.
Morrow spoke to a bloke at Mangawhai, now deceased, who said an anchor matching Morrow's was recovered from water near the Hen and Chicken Islands off Bream Bay, Northland, in 1926.
The anchor matched exactly the dimensions of the de Surville anchor at the museum in Kaitaia, Morrow said, and according to de Surville's logbook he sailed through the Hen and Chickens before heading to South America. Although there was no mention in the logbook of de Surville losing a fourth anchor (there were six in total), it might have happened. "Who knows?"
Gordon said anchors were sometimes swapped between ships so it would be difficult to nail down its provenance. It could have come from a French whaler, he said. It was unlikely, but not impossible, that it was a de Surville or du Fresne anchor.
"It certainly needs looking into. We thought we knew all the big anchors around, I haven't seen another one like this that we haven't accounted for."
Morrow said he put the anchor up for auction to get an idea of its value and never really wanted to sell it. When he heard it could be worth $20,000, he moved it from his scrap metal yard in Te Hana to his property, "in case someone tried to borrow it".
He'd had many offers over the years, he said, mainly from restaurants wanting the anchor as a display piece, and tourists loved having their photo taken with it.
He'd offered it to the Maritime Museum in Auckland, but never heard back.
He said he was told by someone at the museum in Kaitaia that it should be returned to the sea.
"I said, ‘Why don't you return yours to the sea?' His face dropped."
Gordon told Morrow about his colleague Garth McIntyre's plans for a $13 million Shipwreck Heritage Institute on Wellington's waterfront, suggesting that could be the perfect home for his anchor.
"If somebody comes up with an idea and I agree, I have no problem where it goes as long as it's not sold off or dumped or ends up in Australia," Morrow said.
McIntyre phoned Morrow that night, and sent him details of his proposed museum.
"He's very keen. At the end of the day, it's the perfect home for it," McIntyre told the Star-Times.
McIntyre said although it was not known exactly what ship the anchor was from, it was obvious from its design that it was from the same era as the de Surville and du Fresne ones. Carbon dating would be able to narrow down its exact age.
McIntyre said museums tended to reject such artefacts.
"They have rules and regulations for dealing with anything pre-1900 - ‘oh we can't touch it . . . put it back in the sea'.
"I think it's ridiculous. Let's just wipe the slate clean, what have we got here? It's significant, it's old, it's French and it's got inherent interest to the public."
- Sunday Star Times