End of a 40-year saga: Motunui Panels returned

Posted on: July 8, 2014 by

It has recently been announced that five panels carved by the Te Atiawa iwi in the late eighteenth-century have been returned from Switzerland to New Zealand by the wife and son of the late antiquities collector George Ortiz.

The panels had been discovered buried in a swamp near Motunui in 1972 and were subsequently exported from New Zealand without an export permit. In 1973, they were bought in New York by Ortiz for $65,000. Ortiz, an eminent (though controversial) collector, was then required to put the works up for auction in London under tragic circumstances: his six-year-old daughter had been kidnapped and the kidnappers were seeking a $2 million ransom. Once the panels were consigned to auction, however, the New Zealand government sought their return through the courts, issuing a writ in 1978 claiming state ownership of the objects.

The dispute led to the well-known decisions of the Court of Appeal and the House of Lords in A-G of New Zealand v Ortiz [1984] AC 1, which affirmed the principle that the UK would not enforce the export laws of a foreign jurisdiction. New Zealand’s export laws were seen not to vest title in illegally exported material with the state. Without adequate title, New Zealand could not then bring a claim before the UK courts seeking the return of the panels. (It should be noted that the more recent decision by the Court of Appeal in Iran v Barakat [2007] EWCA Civ 1374, dealing with the case of illegally exported antiquities from Iran, found that the Iranian law had sufficiently vested title to the antiquities in Iran.)

Ortiz died in 2013. The New Zealand government entered into negotiations with Ortiz’s heirs in March 2014. Confidential terms were reached and the panels were returned from Switzerland to New Zealand in early July 2014. They will be kept at the Te Papa Museum in Wellington until their eventual return to the people of the Te Atiawa iwi, likely in August.