A fascinating piece of colonial history went under the hammer at Toovey’s Spring Gardens saleroom last month, in the form of an early 19th century Maori ‘waka huia’ or feather box. The boat-shaped hardwood box with carved decoration, length 43cm, was a rare and unusual thing to find in a Sussex auction.
Waka huia were so-named because the striking black and white tail feathers of the huia, the largest species of the New Zealand wattlebird, were highly valued by Maoris and used for personal adornment. These feathers and other prized and sacred effects would have been kept in the box, which would have been suspended from the ceiling of the owner’s home, out of the reach of children. For this reason, as much attention was given to the decoration on the underside as to that on the top. To Maori families, waka huia were important objects in themselves. They were lovingly carved in each family style and handed down through generations. Sometimes they were given away as presents to mark friendships, tribal affiliations or special occasions. Probably crafted around 1810-20, this particular example had an interesting addition – the underside of the lid was inscribed ‘George Hawthorn 1830’ in yellow paint. Little is known about Hawthorn but he may well have been one of the explorers, sailors, traders, missionaries or government officials who visited the Antipodes regularly at this time. The vendor of the waka huia believed that Hawthorn was a distant relative and the box had been passed down through her family, just as in Maori tradition. It was not the most elaborately carved example but the curvilinear decoration was nicely done and each end had a handle in the form of a stylized head. Unfortunately, both of these had at some point been broken off and glued back on. The lid was also split in two and in need of expert restoration. None of this put off a London specialist dealer, one of seven telephone bidders up against a host of live internet bidders around the world participating in the sale at Toovey’s, who was pleased to secure the box at the hammer price of £8,500.