Maori protest historic medal's sale

DAMIEN MURPHY
Last updated 11:42 15/04/2014
Te Pahi medal
DOMINIC LORRIMER/ Fairfax AUS

Protesters perform the haka outside the Intercontinental last night.

Te Pahi medal
JOHN KEATS/ Fairfax AUS
TE PAHI MEDAL: This artifact was a gift from a British governor to a Maori chief in 1806.

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Maori are protesting the auction of a silver medal that holds historic meaning on both sides of the Tasman.

In Sydney last night a haka was performed outside the auction house Sotheby's while in New Zealand Maori elders had directed lawyers to draw up an injunction to be served before tonight's auction.

The artifact in dispute was the Te Pahi silver medal - possibly one of the most outstanding vestiges of the early story of Australia and New Zealand.

Philip Gidley King, the third governor of the colony of NSW, presented the medal to the Maori chief Te Pahi (whose name was Anglicised to Tippahee) in January 1806, when the two friends were attempting to reduce Maori hostility towards the British.

But the Pacific was a violent world then. Within four years British whalers had torched the Maori leader's home island and he died soon after. The medal disappeared.

It was listed as item 125 for Sotheby's auction tonight of ''fine Asian, Australian & European arts and design''. Sotheby's expected it to fetch between A$300,000 (NZ$325,000) and A$500,000 (NZ$542,000).

''You can't put a price on our history,'' said Kiri Barber, one of the leaders of the haka performed last night.

''This is such an important part of our story - the first time a British leader recognised one of our leaders. It cannot just become someone's investment play-thing or disappear into a private collection.''

Barber said while Sydney Maori were trying to shame Sotheby's into withdrawing the medal with their haka, elders in New Zealand were attempting to use legal methods.

Sotheby's boss Gary Singer said he had received a letter protesting the auction.

''But we don't know who they are or what they want, so its impossible to give a definitive reply,'' he said.

''But should there be some sort of challenge to ownership, well these sorts of things go on all the time - you only have to look at Greece and the Elgin Marbles.''

King, who had arrived on the First Fleet, was lieutenant governor of Norfolk Island when he started using Maori to help convicts and settlers learn to grow flax.

When King returned some Maori safely home to the Bay of Islands, it was the beginning of an enduring friendship with a grateful local chief, Te Pahi.

In 1800, King became the third governor of NSW and five years later Te Pahi sailed to Sydney to spend three months living at Government House.

The medal has been in private ownership for decades, including a family in the New South Wales city of Dubbo until 1900. Sotheby's preferred not to divulge much more of its history.

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- Sydney Morning Herald

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