Art lovers count the cost of Matthews fire

Fire takes eclectic and largely irreplaceable collection

Last updated 05:00 23/01/2014
john matthews
Fire razed the home of John Matthews to the ground.

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The fire at the Matthews home near Omata has caused the single biggest loss of contemporary New Zealand art ever.

John and Lynda Matthews lost their home and extensive art collection when fire engulfed their house south of New Plymouth just after midnight on Tuesday.

Works lost include sculptures and paintings by such renowned artists as Ralph Hotere, Colin McCahon, Tony Fomison and Taranaki's Don Driver and Michael Smither.

Also lost were sculptural works by Barry Brickell, Len Castle and Max Gimblett.

Yesterday Mr Matthews said they had been working with insurers that morning but would not say how much the collection was worth or what it was insured for.

"We are not commenting on it, but it was a very large collection with significant works," he said.

The loss of the eclectic and largely irreplaceable collection has stunned art lovers across the country and is seen as the single biggest loss of significant contemporary New Zealand art.

The only incident thought to come close to such a loss of important works happened in 2007 when a courier truck caught fire in the South Island while carrying 35 artworks, including some by McCahon and Hotere.

At the time the McCahon was said to be worth between $250,000 and $400,000 while the Hotere was worth up to $300,000.

Ben Plumbly, of Auckland's Art and Object art auction house, said he was not aware of any other incident in which so many significant works were lost.

He said not only did the collection include a large number of important works, but many had been commissioned specifically for the collection by artists who developed close working and personal relationships with the Taranaki couple.

"Often there is a tendency in the media to focus on individual artists and individual pieces, but with a collection like this the whole was more than the sum of its parts.

"There hasn't been a loss like this that I am aware of. It would be impossible to put together another collection of this type," he said.

Mr Matthews yesterday said they would rebuild the home but hadn't made a decision on whether to start collecting again.

Though equipped with smoke and motion detectors monitored by a security firm, an external high pressure fire hose system with an independent water supply and a large number of dry powder extinguishers, the home did not have an internal sprinkler system.

"It wasn't in the design of the building. It was finished more than 20 years ago. Very few homes in New Zealand from that time would have a sprinkler system. It was a question of risk. I had been there for 50 years and we had never had an incident. Now we have had one and it is total," he said.

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Mr Matthews has speculated a neon sculpture may have started the fire but yesterday said that was only because he saw flames in the area. It was now up to investigators to work out the cause, he said.

Internationally respected Urenui artist John McLean said he had not seen the collection but knew of its significance and the loss it represented.

"When I heard about it I had two reactions: My first, I felt huge sympathy for John and Lynda. Not only for the loss of what they treasured but I know they would have felt they were custodians for those treasures. They would have been devastated that they came to grief in their possession.

"On the other hand art is always becoming. You have art for posterity but art is being created and art is growing all the time," he said.

Editorial: Page 10

- Taranaki Daily News

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