What Most People Don’t Know About War:  The Destruction of Tibetan Cultural Heritage by Communist China

 In 2003 Chris Hedges, a cultural critic and foreign correspondent for the New York Times, published a book entitled What Every Person Should Know About War. The book is strictly presented in a question and answer format and in the first chapter, Hedges poses the question ‘has the world ever been at peace?’ In response to this loaded question, Hedges claims that “of the past 3,400 years, humans have been entirely at peace for 268 of them, or just 8 percent of recorded history.”

Hedges’ discussion focuses specifically on the various scenarios faced by soldiers and the effects that their experiences during war have on them. While the impact of war on human life is a huge aspect of armed conflict, there are other casualties during wartime that are commonly overlooked. In all of the questions asked and answered by Hedges throughout his book, not one of them notes the destruction of art and cultural heritage during war. For many people the answer may seem obvious. Why would a book on war be concerned with the destruction of the material objects we refer to as ‘art’, when war results in the immense suffering and deaths of millions of people? A clear cut answer. However, consider for a moment the implications of the destruction of a countries, or a cultures, heritage. In the context of the suffering of art during war, we are not simply talking about the destruction of a few painted canvas’s. What we are talking about the complete and utter obliteration, and in some cases severe appropriation, of the very essence of a particular culture; its history, religion, traditions and creative achievements.

If we were to make use of Hedges time frame of 3,400 years to locate a starting point for this discussion, we would find ourselves in the middle of 1300 B.C. in ancient Egypt. During this period the pharaoh Akhenaten was amidst his radical and controversial 17 year reign. One of Akhenaten’s main desires was to change the focus of ancient Egyptian religion from the god Amun-Ra to the god Aten. He declared that Aten was the only true god and ordered the defacing and destruction of all mentions of Amun-Ra, and any mention of plural god’s, in temples across Egypt. In wake of this significant shift in religious worship,  Akhenaten also attempted influence Egyptian art. His central focus was to change the way figures, especially those depicting royalty, were to be depicted in painting. His desired figures have been described by Egyptologists as grotesque and deformed “with cone shaped heads and thin spindly limbs.” These changes of tradition did not rest well with most members of ancient Egyptian society. It was inevitable then that upon his death Akhenaten’s own name, and monuments dedicated to him, were unceremoniously destroyed. When the famous pharaoh Tutankhamun began his reign directly after Akhenaten, he and his fellow successors worked to undo Akhenaten’s influences and restore Egypt to its old and honoured traditions.



Although Akhenaten’s radical attacks on religion and art, and what we would now consider cultural heritage, did not take place during a war, his actions are telling. What can be extracted from these early events is the beginning of a pattern that can be seen appearing in developed and hybrid forms throughout history, in all corners of the world. This pattern has reinforced the notion that in order to inflict and enforce drastic changes on a culture the old must be eradicated and the new must spring forth in one fowl swoop. From ancient Egypt we can wade through a blood soaked history of conquests, sieges, sackings and wars resulting in endless waves of pillaging, looting and destruction, and find ourselves in 1950’s Tibet.

In 1949, the Chinese Communist Party prevailed as the victor of the civil war against the Nationalist Party in China. This success lead to the subsequent establishment of the Peoples Republic of China lead by Mao Zedong. In October of  1950, an estimated 30,000 Chinese troops were sent to invade Tibet, swiftly and mercilessly bringing to an end its isolated existence beyond the Himalayas. Tibet’s head of state, the Dalai Lama immediately appealed to the then newly formed United Nations, to protect Tibet and its people. This request was denied. Both England and India in particular were significant influences in this decision, as they were both attempting to normalise relations with China during this time. Tibet was also not a member-state of the United Nations and so nothing was done to help them. Tibet was left with no other choice than to attempt to negotiate with China alone. Initially, Mao’s Peoples Liberation Army had promised to respect Tibet’s way of life, its religious institutions and its freedom. This was signified by the signing of the 17 Point Agreement, an agreement that is now understood to have been signed by Tibetan officials under the threat of violence.


To the outside world, Communist China had agreed on a peaceful liberation of Tibet and seemed to be tolerating the Buddhist religion that was so contrary to its own material driven society and violent practices. Throughout the years of occupation however, China’s true motivations for their invasion began to come to light. Within Tibet, it was always clear that the true goal of Communist China in its ‘liberation’ was not only to claim Tibetan territory for ‘the motherland’ but to systematically repress religious worship and eradicate Tibetan culture from the inside out, imposing on the people of Tibet Chinas new found communist customs.

Since the second dissemination of Tibetan Buddhism in 1042, established by the Indian scholar Atisha Dipankara Shrijnana, the Buddhist religion has developed and transformed into the unique core of Tibetan culture. In order to solidify their rule in Tibet, communist China believed it was necessary to eradicate the religious base on which Tibetan culture was built. Banning the practice of Buddhism was not enough to unhinge a belief system so deeply rooted in Tibet’s cultural existence, and so the physical symbols of Buddhism had to be destroyed also.  Before the 1950 invasion, Tibet housed more than 6000 monasteries and temples dedicated to the various practices and schools of Buddhism. Today, with restorations and re-openings, it is estimated that only around 100 survived the clutches of Communist China.


After the initial invasion, Chinese troops began intentionally targeting institutions, monasteries and temples that housed holy Tibetan manuscripts. They attacked and destroyed these sacred buildings and piled thousands upon thousands of ancient holy texts into the streets before setting fire to them. Tibet’s unwillingness to stand by any longer after watching their religion and culture be destroyed over almost a decade, lead to the inevitable National Uprising of 1959. Communist China’s actions could no longer go unnoticed by the international community as it unleashed wholesale destruction of Tibetan buildings and religious artifacts. One author powerfully noted that “a thousand years’ worth of priceless Buddhist literature, religious paintings and artifacts were either destroyed or have fetched millions of dollars on the international market in an effort by the Chinese to raise foreign currency and to wipe out Tibet’s rich heritage.”

The 1959 National Uprising finally sparked the much needed international outrage at the unjust treatment of the Tibetan people. The United Nations subsequently passed the first of three resolutions to be passed on the situation in Tibet. These resolutions formally voiced the United Nations’ “grave concern at the continued violation of the fundamental rights and freedoms of Tibetans” and called for the much needed “respect of the fundamental human rights of the Tibetan people and for their distinctive cultural and religious life.”

22%20june%202012%20004This call from the United Nations and from the international community unfortunately came too late for the Tibetan people. Many Tibetans, including the Dalai Lama himself, were forced into exile. Those who stayed behind were either killed or had been reduced to a low class, minority population. What must be acknowledged in this situation, as it should be in all instances of armed conflict, is that the destruction of one nation’s cultural heritage is not only a devastating loss for that nation, but for the world as a whole. Tibet’s unique development of the Buddhist religion was incredibly influential for a number of countries who also practiced Buddhism. Tibet subsequently became a key destination for the pilgrimages of monks on the quest for enlightenment and seeking the preaching of love and peace. Unlike the successful restoration of ancient Egyptian religion by Tutankhamun, Tibet is yet to see the dislocation of its religious traditions and people put right.



Chris Hedges, What Every Person Should Know About War, (New York: Free Press, 2003) 1.

Jeff M. Smith, Cold Peace: China-India Rivalry in the Twenty-First Century, (United Kingdom: Lexington Books, 2013) 21.


“Akhenaten: Egyptian Pharaoh, Nefertiti’s Husband, Tut’s Father,” last modified August 30, 2013,

Tibet, the United Nations and Human Rights,” accessed July 5, 2015,

“Tibet’s Struggle for Independence from China, 1950,” accessed July 5, 2015,

“The Situation of Tibet,” accessed July 5, 2015,


“Unconquerable Tibet – Chinese Invasion of Tibet in 1950 and the Anti-Communist Revolt | Documentary,” YouTube video, 9:22, posted by The Best Film Archives, September 28, 2013.

“Chinese Invaders Destroy Tibetan Scriptures and Monasteries – Geshe Lhakdor,” YouTube video, 2:48, posted by uatextprogram, Feburary 15, 2013.



‘Mō tātou, ā mō kā uri ā muri ake nei – for us and our children after us’: The Online Trade of Authentic New Zealand Pounamu

The history of New Zealand is not a particularly long story when compared to most of the world’s nations. The landing of Captain James Cook in the middle of the east coast of the North Island in 1769, marked the beginning of a new commonwealth nation through the gradual colonization of Aotearoa. In 1840 New Zealand’s controversial founding document, the Treaty of Waitangi, was signed by representatives of the British Crown and more than 500 Māori chiefs. Since its signing, the Treaty has been at the center of continuous debates which have resulted in number of actions being taken to ensure the return of land and artefacts, taken by the pakeha, to the Māori people. When I first began to consider what to research for this article, I realised that this was a great opportunity for me to learn more about my own country, its indigenous population and its cultural heritage.

In order to conduct a specific survey of the online market for Māori artefacts, I began my research by searching the internet using generic key phrases such as “buy authentic Māori artefacts online.” What I discovered was that both raw and carved pounamu stones were by far the most popular Māori objects being sold online. I began to dig deeper into the sale of authentic New Zealand pounamu and discovered that there is in fact a long and in-depth history involving the ownership and protection of these sacred objects. The scope of this article will therefore survey the history of pounamu, the laws protecting it and the current online market for both raw and carved pounamu objects. I would like to explore the issues of both the sale of fake pounamu and the theft of authentic pounamu, which is then sold on the black market. I will present a case study from both the national New Zealand online market and the international market in order to make some observations about these issues.

In terms of its physicality, pounamu is a strong and highly valued stone usually found as large boulders in its raw form. ‘Pounamu’ is the Māori term for the stone but it is also commonly called greenstone or New Zealand jade. Pounamu is a stone that has long been harvested and carved into a range of marketable objects such as jewellery, tools and weapons and is treasured by Māori for a number of reasons. Not only is pounamu valued because of its strength and beauty, but it also has immense cultural significance because it is regarded a sign of status, power and in times on conflict, peace. Furthermore, it is considered ‘tapu’, meaning that it is believed to be incredibly sacred and spiritual, especially due to its purported ability to link heaven and earth, starts and water. One of the most significant traditions of obtaining a pounamu object is that they are not allowed to be purchased by an individual for that individuals own use. Culturally, these objects must only be given as gifts and there is an understanding that when such an object is purchased to be given as a gift, it is blessed. During this blessing process it is believed  that the energy of all those present will be draw into the stone and add to the objects life force and aura. This is a detail which creates an interesting issue when buy and selling such objects online; what histories do these objects have? What plans to the buyers have for such objects?

The history of the ownership and protection of pounamu is one that straddles the line between mythology and documented human history. True, authentic New Zealand pounamu is only found in the south western corner of the west coast, known as the poutini coast, of the South Island and is guarded by the Poutini Ngāi Tahu tribe. Poutini Ngāi Tahu, however, have not always been the guardians of the west coast. The Ngāti Wairangi people were the first to occupy the area and were well protected from the Ngāi Tahu, who originally occupied the east coast, because the two coasts are separated by the Southern Alps. They story of how Ngāi Tahu obtained their hold over the west coast began with a woman named Raureka. According to legend, around 1700 AD, Raureka discovered a way over the Alps and came across some Ngāi Tahu tribesmen. She approached the tribesmen and proceeded to show them some tools made from the west coast pounamu and offered to show them the source of the stone. She led the men over the mountains and officially introduced them to the valuable resource they would come to protect for centuries.

This discovery however eventually lead to an outbreak of tribal wars throughout the early 1800’s. Ngāi Tahu defeated the Ngāti Wairangi tribe and claimed the west coast for themselves, and is how they became known as Poutini Ngāi Tahu. The tribe were constantly faced with the task of defending their land from other invading tribes from the north but were successful in all of their battles. In 1859 however, the tribe came up against an enemy they did not know how to defend themselves against. The Crown purchasing and policies from England, lead by a man called James Mackay, began intruding on Ngāi Tahu’s access to pounamu. In their land negotiations, Mackay assured Ngāi Tahu that the British government had not use for the pounamu. In response, the Ngāi Tahu stated that they would then expect full ownership of all the land housing pounamu. As it turns out, Ngāi Tahu were only granted a mere 2,000 acres along the Arahura river bed.

Although negotiations had taken place and the Crown made her promises to reserve the land for the tribe, such promises were never realised. At no time was any legislative recognition provided by the Crown to Ngāi Tahu and their special relationship with pounamu in not only the Arahura, but in any of Ngāi Tahu’s tribal areas. This issue first came to light when, in 1976, “the Crown vested ownership of the bed of the Arahura River [to] the Māwhera Corporation, which was set up to represent the original owners. Even then, it was doubtful that this returned the right to pounamu to the corporation. At the time, mining and extraction of pounamu was controlled by the Crown under the Mining Act 1971, and it had been similarly controlled under previous legislation.” The Ngāi Tahu took this issue straight to the Waitangi Tribunal, a permanent commission of inquiry that was established under the Treaty of Waitangi Act of 1975. The Waitangi Tribunal’s sole purpose is to investigate and make recommendations on claims brought by Māori against the actions of the Crown in New Zealand. With this particular case, the Tribunal’s findings were that “the unique nature of pounamu and its deep spiritual significance in Māori life and culture is such that every effort should now be made to secure as much as possible to Ngāi Tahu ownership and control.” On the basis of this recommendation, the Crown agreed to return the legal ownership of pounamu to Ngāi Tahu and passed the Ngāi Tahu (Pounamu Vesting) Act 1997. Under this act, the ownership of all pounamu occurring in its natural state in Ngāi Tahu’s tribal area, including the coast line, was vested in Ngāi Tahu. In order to further solidify their hold on the ownership of pounamu and to protect the sustainability of the resource for future generations, the Ngāi Tahu developed the Pounamu Resource Management Plan, which was approved in 2002. Ngāi Tahu also developed the ‘Authentic Greenstone’ website which is a valuable resource for researching and understanding the laws and regulations surrounding the sale of pounamu.

Just as foundations such as the Andy Warhol Foundation (AWF) have taken on the responsibility of authenticating an artist’s works (although the AWF have since relinquished this power) the Ngāi Tahu’s official website allows access to a means of authenticating New Zealand pounamu. A lot of objects on the market, both online and in stores, claim to be New Zealand pounamu but are instead carved from jade sourced from Canada, China and Siberia which have then been carved in New Zealand, or in some cases been carved in China. On the Ngāi Tahu website, the tribe offers the option for visitors to apply to become a licenced artisan which means that they can legally buy authentic raw pounamu from Ngai Tahu to be carved and sold. What must be noted here is that the Ngāi Tahu are not offering a ‘registration’ but and ‘application’ which implies that they scrutinise and carefully select the people with whom they do business. This point is crucial when it comes to dealing with the online market, and one I will return to in a later case study.

The official Ngāi Tahu ‘Authentic Greenstone’ website clearly outlines the laws surrounding the removal of authentic pounamu from Ngai Tahu land. There are separate laws and regulations concerning pounamu in both its raw form and its carved form. In the first instance they state that “any raw pounamu, such as a boulder, discovered outside areas open to public fossicking and/or larger than one person can carry, is the property of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and should be notified to the Pounamu Management Officer immediately.” It is stated that all naturally occurring pounamu, found within Ngāi Tahu tribal areas, is the property of Ngāi Tahu and is protected from theft under the Crimes Act 1961. The theft of pounamu is an issue I will return to shortly. In the second instance, “any artefacts found, such as a toki (adze) or a hei tiki (stylised pendant) is the property of the Crown and is of particular significance to Ngāi Tahu. It is illegal to remove or to interfere in any way, with the artefact, or the site where it was found. If discovery of an artifact is made on DOC [Department of Conservation] land, DOC should be notified immediately and they will notify Ngāi Tahu. On all other land, the local regional museum should be notified, who will in turn notify Ngāi Tahu.” What is important to note, in terms of the response to cultural artefacts being found, is that any object found on land that is not under the authority of the DOC, must be reported to the regional museum. What this means is that there is clearly an open line of communication between the regional museums and the local Ngāi Tahu tribe members which is crucial and ensuring that these objects are protected and cared for in the appropriate manner.

Ngāi Tahu’s website is not the only site that offers specific information about the laws protecting pounamu. When I first began my research on the online market for Māori artefacts, one of my first discoveries was an Australian website called ‘Carter’s Price Guide to Antiquities.’ The site states at the very top of their page displaying ‘Greenstone – Maori Artefacts’ that “under the New Zealand Protected Objects act 1975 the sale, trade, export and ownership of some Māori artefact are regulated. Objects over 50 years old that also have Māori cultural significance must be inspected by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, and if significant the object will be allocated a “Y” number which is a unique identification number. Artefacts that possess this “Y” number can only be purchased by those that are registered collectors with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. These  “Y” numbered artefacts are not able to leave the country without written permission by the Ministry for Culture and Heritage. Items that do not have a Y number have no restrictions.” The site states that it is strictly a ‘price guide’ and does not offer any items for sale. However, after going through a fair amount of detail about the importance of objects possessing a Y number, they themselves do not display whether or not any of the items on their website in fact have a Y number.

There is clearly a significant amount of legislation in place to protect authentic New Zealand pounamu. While Ngāi Tahu have an online market via their website, selling both carved and raw pounamu, there are a number of online galleries throughout New Zealand that sell pounamu both in store and online. The most concerning forum for the sale of New Zealand pounamu, and the area that is of the most interest in this paper, are online auction sites. On a national level, Trademe, a site that sells anything from electronics to property, is New Zealand’s largest online auction site. When searching for ‘authentic New Zealand pounamu’ in the Trademe search engine, a total of seven listings appear that are a combination of raw and carved pounamu and range between $400 NZD and $20 NZD. Five out of the seven listings are located as coming from the west coast, in the very center of Ngāi Tahu land. The two remaining listings, from the same seller, provide a detailed outline of the laws surrounding the sale of New Zealand pounamu and states that “all Ngai Tahu Authenticated pounamu shows the Ngai Tahu Pounamu registered trademark and a unique traceability code, that when entered online, identifies the origin and whakapapa (geneaology) of the stone, how it was extracted and processed and who the artist was that carved it. The unique traceability code is your guarantee that your product is authentic and creates an unbroken chain from the legal collection on the riverbed to the carvers workshop and into your hands.” When each piece is delivered to the buyer it is done so with a card stating the pieces authenticity and provides the unique traceability code which allows the buyer to trace their piece.

When using more generic terminology in the Trademe search engine, such as ‘New Zealand greenstone’, 127 listings appear. One of the first listings I discovered in my early research was a seller claiming the sale of an ‘awesome Old NZ Maori Greenstone? Serpentine Amulet Artefact.’The piece sold for $506 NZD. The seller’s provenance for this piece consisted of a single sentence starting “I am told by the elderly chap I bought this from he found near the farm he still lives on near Port Chalmers.” The piece appears to be a raw slab of pounamu. There is a significant amount of DOC land around the Port Chalmers area and so it is possible that the artefact in question should have been reported to the Ngāi Tahu before being sold. The question mark in the title of the listing does not instill much confidence in the seller as it indicates that he is not sure what exactly the object is or where it has really come from. He therefore may not have authorisation to sell it. The seller does make the effort to state that this piece can only be sold to a registered collector and provides a link to register, stating that “registration has no cost and is quick and easy.” ‘Easy’ registration presents little defense from people who are not legitimate collectors and is in striking contrast to the application process that is required by Ngāi Tahu to deal in pounamu.

While the New Zealand online market can be much more closely monitored by Ngāi Tahu, the international online market is a much bigger issue. eBay is an online auction site that provided the most listings when searching for international sellers of New Zealand pounamu. While there are a large number of New Zealand and Australian sellers on eBay there are also sellers from the United States and the United Kingdom. There is less of a market on eBay for raw pounamu as the listings all present mostly carved pendants. One of the most interesting listings was a ‘Sieler Orgional Sterling New Zealand Jade Hei Tiki Pounamu Greenstone Maori’ with a price tag of US $1,475 ($2254.25 NZD). The seller’s site name is ‘shopshopshoptoday’, is based in Los Angles and has a huge eBay store of jewellery ranging in prices from US $ 6527.43 to US $ 5.02. The description for this piece states:

“Patrick Dennis Sieler original New Zealand Jade Hei Tiki! Measures 2 3/8″ x 2 1/4″. Weighs 40.3 grams. Comes with the original pamphlet: Design Patrick dennis sieler, box from: Nunes Jewelry, Mfg Co, 9012 W. Olympic Blvd, Beverly Hillys, CALIF. Appraisal: Patrick Dennis Sieler, 9012 Beverly Blvd, Los Angeles, California…New Zealand Jade Tiki.. date 24 May 1957. Condition is amazing! Slight red enamel loss around the eyes. Comes with original paperwork & box.”


The seller has also provided pictures of the object and the authentication document. Online, there is a record of a Patrick Dennis Sieler, born 1922 in California, a birthdate which which makes the date on the authentication document plausible. While this Sieler may have been a designer or a carver, it is unclear and unlikely that he has any Māori heritage or any connection with the Ngāi Tahu tribe. The stylistic qualities of the carving are questionable and when compared to other examples of hei tiki it falls short of being the impressive piece the seller claims it to be.

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Because the description states that the design was by Patrick Sieler, this indicates that the piece was in its raw form, in Sieler’s possession, before it was carved. The question is then raised about how he obtained the stone. None of the laws protecting pounamu were in existence before and shortly after 1957, and the Crimes Act was not enforced until 1961. It is therefore possible that there was an open market for pounamu to freely leave New Zealand and come into Sieler’s possession. Since the implementation of the laws and regulations protecting pounamu, Ngāi Tahu have been able to crack down on the undeniable undertone of illegal activity that has surrounded the sale of the stone. However this crack down as resulted in the development of immense tension regarding the strength of the legal ownership of pounamu by Ngāi Tahu between the tribe and other members of the greenstone industry.

In 2006, for example, a greenstone carver and former member of the Ngai Tahu Pounamu Management Group, named Bevan Climo, accused the tribe in an article on the New Zealand herald website, stating that “in the first instance … Ngai Tahu are the thieves. (Pounamu) was never the Government’s to give to them.” Mark Solomon, on the other hand, who is the kaiwhakahaere (chairperson) of Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, the tribal council of Ngāi Tahu, has a very different point of view. In the same New Zealand herald article, Solomon states that “for a long time now we have known that [black market greenstone] is quite a big industry. We all know it is happening, but it is getting the evidence.” The goal of Ngāi Tahu is to protect the supply of pounamu for future generations and to make sure that there is a means of authenticating the stone in order to uphold its integrity and preserve its cultural significance. The years 2006 and 2007 saw the prosecution of two separate cases of pounamu theft. In 2006 Harvey Hutton, a renowned search and rescue helicopter pilot was prosecuted for stealing up to 40 tonnes of pounamu from the southern west coast between 1997 and 2004. Hutton was sentenced to 18 months in jail and was ordered to pay $300,000. In 2007 two more men, both of whom were also helicopter piolets, were prosecuted. This case was a father and son duo, David Anthony Saxton, 60, and Morgan David Saxton, 28, were prosecuted for stealing pounamu that was originally estimated at $800,000 NZD, over a 14 year period between October 1997 and September 2003.

Controlling the online sale of authentic New Zealand pounamu, particularly in the international sphere is a difficult task. The best advice that can be derived from this study is that potential buyers should look to make their purchases from within New Zealand and look for pieces that are accompanied by a unique Ngāi Tahu traceability code. Pounamu is a beautiful material and should rightly be preserved for future generations to enjoy and work with. As the battle to keep traditional Maori culture alive, it is of the utmost importance that crafts and traditions such as the carving of pounamu be protected and respected.

“Story: Pounamu – jade or greenstone – Page 3 – Ngāi Tahu and pounamu.” Last modified September 22, 2012.
“The Maori and the Mountains” National Library of New Zealand. Accessed July 4, 2015.
“Tracing Pounamu.” Last modified June 19, 2012.
“Finding Pounamu Artefacts – What You Need to Know.” Last modified July 23, 2012.
“Greenstone – Maori Artefacts.” Carter’s Price Guide to Antiquities. Accessed July 6, 2015.
“Authenticated Pounamu – Drop Pendant” Trademe. Accessed July 6, 2015.
“Awesome Old NZ Maori Greenstone? Serpentine Amulet Artefact.” Accessed July 6, 2015. No URL Available.
“Sieler Orgiional Sterling New Zealand Jade Hei Tiki Pounamu Greenstone Maori.” Accessed July 23, 2015.
“Tribe guards greenstone but fears huge losses to thieves.” New Zealand Herald. Last modified June 2, 2006.
“Father and son guilty of greenstone theft.” Last modified October 24, 2007.



Forgers, Thieves and Conmen: A Brief History of Art Crime in New Zealand

Whenever I mention to people that I am perusing a career in art crime, I watch with fascination as their faces contort through a series of emotions. Their eyes widen and their eyebrows disappear into their hairline, in an expression that is lodged somewhere between surprise, interest and confusion. I can see their brains frantically searching its hidden compartments for any slither of information they might have on the subject. Not surprisingly, their brains usually come up with a handful of classic art crime stereotypes. I can almost see the images of these figures flashing across their eyes. There is Pierce Brosnan as the dashing millionaire Thomas Crown, the overly wealthy, yet strikingly cultured business man, who is eager to obtain objects money cannot buy for his own viewing pleasure. Or perhaps Harrison Ford as the heart throb historian Indiana Jones, the heroic historian who fights off tomb raiders in order to save ancient artefacts, proclaiming; “that belongs in a museum!” Audrey Hepburn may also make an appearance in the form of the beautiful and cunning Nicole Bonnet, the devoted daughter who risks it all in order for the truth of her father’s art forging to remain undiscovered.

Since the early days of film, back when it was black and white and silent (maybe with a little piano playing at stage left), art crime has been a hot topic. Films like ‘The Three Scratch Clue’ (1914) and ‘Secretary of Frivolous Affairs’ (1915) told scandalous tales of theft retribution and resolution. It is in these early films that we can see the emergence of common conventions that are used when addressing the theme of art crime.

To begin, a precious work of art is stolen or is under threat, a person or group must therefore rescue the work or protect it; there is always the presence of a romance either with an innocent victim or a seductive femme fatal, in the end justice is served to the villain and everything has a happy ending. These same conventions have grown to be repeated but to also be reversed (the villain sometimes becomes the antihero) in the Hollywood films we know and love today.

A steady output of Hollywood films about art crime (some good, some not so much), has significantly fuelled the stereotypical images of those that would commit crimes against art. Subsequently as an audience we have a set of quick-fire reference points on the topic, reinforcing that art crime is romantic, exotic, scandalous, dangerous and comedic. These reference points sink into the back of the audience’s brains and are very rarely tapped into again (at least not until the next Indiana Jones film comes out).

Film is one of the strongest sources of how ideas of art crime have been injected into everyday society. At times, when real life art crimes are reported, reporters are inclined to makes statements like “this theft was like something out of a film.” Crimes like the 2000 Stockholm Museum heist, where a team of armed burglars set two cars on fire to block the roads and to distract police while they stole over $30 million worth of Renoir and Rembrandt paintings and made their get-away in a boat. Audiences are conditioned to comfortably rely on the view that crimes against art are romantic adventures or comedic encounters, fraught with scandal and suspense.

But through its glamorising and romanticising, Hollywood succeeds in dropping the ‘crime’ in art crime all together and leaves it seeming rather light hearted and harmless. Even when we are faced with a film modelled on real life events like ‘The Monuments Men’, these historical accounts are tainted by their Hollywood reproduction. Instead of these films being focused on the significance of, and allowing us to fully grasp the complexity and implication of these events, they are reworked and glamorised. These historical crimes against art become the back drop for the likes of George Clooney and Matt Damon to play out the same stock conventions of the ‘art crime film’ that we have seen time and time again; the threat to art, the dramatic chase and rescue, the budding romance, and justice served to the villain.

My concern here is that a New Zealand audience’s understanding of art crime is being shaped to be inherently abstract. For most of us, art crime is a cosmopolitan phenomenon, disconnected from our -‘safe, clean and green’ – haven. It is an issue for people ‘over there’ or in the past. It unfolds in high profile museums and galleries in major cities around the world, or in the most exotic and obscure corners of the globe.

New Zealand is of course not untouched by the phenomenon of art crime. The purpose of this article is to reveal that a number of crimes against art, both high and low profile, have played out across New Zealand in the last 50 years. The brutal reality of these crimes allow us to cast a wider view than that which is presented to us by Hollywood, and to consider the social and cultural aspects of art crime; its motivations, its victims and its impacts.

In 1972, five late-18th century carved pataka panels, referred to as the Motunui Panels, were discovered in a swamp near Motunui in Taranaki by a Maori tribesman called Manukonga. It is thought that they were hidden there during a period of inter-tribal wars, in order to protect them from destruction or looting. Recognising the value these pieces would have in the European art market, the panels were brought from Manukonga for $6000 NZD by an English antique dealer named Lance Entwistle, and then quickly, silently and illegally smuggled out of New Zealand and taken to New York.

Entwistle sold the panels, with the help of falsified provenance documents, for $65.000 USD to the wealthy and controversial French collector, George Ortiz. This sale pulled New Zealand, and specifically the people of the Te Āti Awa tribe into a rapidly growing international art crime economy. This economy was fuelled by members of the art word like Ortiz and Entwistle; Ortiz representing the final destination and Entwistle representing the middle man who takes advantage of small town locals who may not understand the true value of their cultural heritage, or who are desperate to make easy money.

Ortiz prided himself on his collection of Greek, African and tribal art but was not seen as the victim of an illegal sale. On the contrary, Ortiz was criticised, especially in the 1990’s, for fuelling the illegal excavation and sale of artefacts and therefore enabling an abundance of international crimes against art to occur. In 1994, Lord Renfrew (Professor of Archaeology at Cambridge University) openly criticised Ortiz at the Royal Academy by stating that “our record of the past is being lost by illicit excavations and, of course, by illegal exports. Collectors are the real looters: they buy unprovenanced antiques and thereby finance the cycle of destruction.”

In October of 1977 Ortiz’s daughter was kidnapped and a ransom of $2 million was demanded. Ortiz eventually paid the ransom and his daughter was returned as promised. Unfortunately for Ortiz, and to the joy of other collectors, the financial loss of paying the kidnappers ransom forced Ortiz put 234 pieces from his collection up for auction at Sotheby’s, who valued the panels at £300,000.

It was in the details of the published catalogue of this auction that the existence of the Motunui panels was made known to the New Zealand government, who immediately issued a writ claiming ownership of the panels and demanding that no sale or disposal was to go ahead.

The panels were withdrawn from the ransom bonfire three days before auction, marking the beginning of a 40 year legal battle between the New Zealand government and the English courts, which eventually got as far as The House of Lords. During this battle, New Zealand attempted to enforce our already existing legislations in the Historic Articles Act of 1962 and the Customs Act of 1913 and 1966. Our laws stated that it was unlawful for any person to remove an historic article from New Zealand (knowing it to be historic) without permission. The exportation of any historic article was a breach of this Act, and the article in question would be forfeited to Her Majesty.

The issue with this argument, as was ruled by the Lords, was that this Act could only be applied to historic articles that were seized in New Zealand by New Zealand customs or police. Once the article in question had left New Zealand, and although they eventually ended up in the UK, the law could no longer be applied and New Zealand had no legal grounds to claim ownership (even though the Act states that the article is the property of Her Majesty).

New Zealand’s own laws meant that if a smuggler was able to get a plundered historical article out of the country, without being stopped by New Zealand customs or police, he was away and laughing. This provided a free pass for the persons conducting the exportation and plunder, but left the country whose cultural heritage was being robbed with very few means of protection.

It wasn’t until 2013 when Ortiz died that his family finally came forward and offered to sell the panels to the New Zealand government for a staggering $4.5 million. This lengthy case received international publicity, and allowed a number of world governments to receive a much needed wake-up call in regards to laws about protecting cultural heritage. Attorney-General of New Zealand v Ortiz ignited the flame that drew much needed attention to the international laws on the import and export of cultural property. This attention lead to the development of the Commonwealth Government Secretariat Scheme for the protection of cultural heritage, the UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property and the UNIDROIT Convention on Stolen or Illegally Exported Cultural Objects.

Art crime is a phenomenon that covers a number of activities and understandably there are certain aspects that are taken more seriously than others. We can see from the Attorney-General of New Zealand v Ortiz case that New Zealand’s attitude to the protection of cultural and in particular Maori heritage, is taken extremely seriously. But in the case of the art forger Karl Sim, who forged paintings by some of New Zealand’s most famous artists, the villain became a fondly remembered antihero.

Carl Feodor Goldie, aka Karl Feodor Sim, was the first New Zealander ever to be convicted of art forgery. Sim was arrested in 1985 when it came to light that he had been forging and then selling as originals, paintings and drawings by artists such as Charles F, Goldie, Rita Angus and Colin McCahon in his Foxton antique and wine shop. Sim reportedly got a good kick out of fooling art experts who brought the works from his store. He was convicted on 40 counts of forgery, was fined $1000 and ordered to complete 200 hours community service, which included painting the Foxton Town Hall and the public toilets. It wasn’t until after his court case that Sim legally changed his name to Carl Feodor Goldie so that he could truthfully sign his own works as C.F. Goldie.

This case is a clear example of the light hearted attitude New Zealand tends to associate with some crimes against art, and reveals a case that does not fit neatly into the Hollywood construction of how a crime against art should be played out. After his conviction, and let’s face it a pretty soft sentencing, Sim went on to become a celebrated and well respected national hero. In 2003 he published a book called ‘Good as Goldie’ (later republished as ‘C F Goldie and the Creative Art of Forgery’) and in 2007 he was named the 8th greatest art forger in the world.

When reminiscing about her brother after his death in 2013, and referring to him by his preferred name ‘Goldie’, Margaret Jones said Goldie had a communist way of thinking but his kind, gentle demeanour earned him respect within his community. She recalled that “the magistrate that sentenced him came up from Wellington to Foxton during his trial and went into the four pubs in the town. He couldn’t find anyone that had a bad word to say about him [Goldie], and I think that was part of the reason he got off it so light.”

Jones explained that “He didn’t do it for money or anything, he did it to beat the establishment – because arty people can get a bit snooty. But beating them was his main aim.” Goldie took a private pleasure in duping people who held themselves in too-high-a regard in the art world. Jones stated that Goldie “didn’t like it [forging] in the fact he was strutting around saying ‘look at me I am this and I did that’. He wasn’t like that, it was just ‘I have shown up the art world’.” He was not a man who was concerned about what others thought of him and what he was doing, “he just went on his merry way.”

The case of Anthony Ricardo Sannd falls even shorter of the Hollywood induced expectation of crimes against art. Sannd’s theft appears dramatic and well-planned, but in reality he is neither a villain, nor an antihero, but a man who in early life fell in with the wrong crowd and began a spiralling decent into a life of crime from which he was never able to turn back.

On a Sunday morning in 1998, Auckland man Anthony Ricardo Sannd, a seasoned criminal, war photographer, and motorcycle enthusiast, stormed into the Auckland Art Gallery and ripped the French painter James Tissot’s 1873 masterpiece Still on Top right off the wall. Brandishing a P220Sig-Sauer pistol in one hand and a Winchester Defender single-barrel shotgun in the other, Sannd shoulder charged his way through an unsuspecting security guard.

He bee-lined straight for the Tissot, snatching it off the wall he smashed the glass and pried the frame off with a crowbar. He wrenched out the canvas, roughly rolled it up and stuffed it into an ex-military carrybag that he slung over his shoulder. Racing back out the way he came to his waiting motorbike, Sannd fired a warning shot into the air to discourage anyone from trying to be a hero and speed away.

After eight days, one ransom note that was mailed to an Auckland Lawyer demanding $500,000 for the painting and a claim by Sannd that he had been commissioned by a Hong Kong business man to steal the painting for him, police found the badly damaged Tissot hidden beneath Sannd’s bed. Sannd was sentenced to nearly 17 years for a long list of burglaries and armed robberies.

These past three examples of large-scale art crimes in New Zealand clearly demonstrates that New Zealand is a prime environment for these acts to take place. Just as every other country must deal with variations of art crime, New Zealand art crimes are heavily influenced by the local environments out of which they emerge. They commonly emerge as products methodologies like colonisation, or the paradoxical celebration of kiwi ingenuity, or isolation.

What happened to Auckland artist Dean Buchannan between 2004 and 2007, however, brings home the understanding that art crime can occur on a much more frequent, local and troubling scale.

Buchannan began a casual businesses relationship with a man named Malcolm Baikie, to whom Buchannan would give his paintings and who would sell them on the artist’s behalf for a commission.

This agreement lasted only a short while because greed got the better of Baikie who began stock piling a couple dozen of Buchannan’s paintings without his knowledge. Baikie then secretly began to tour up and down New Zealand, selling paintings in Wanaka, Napier, Karamea and Piha not on behalf of Buchannan but as Buchannan himself. When the real Dean Buchannan got wind of Baikie’s scam he confronted him and demanded Baikie either give the paintings back or pay the money Baikie had received from his sales.

When Baikie refused, Buchannan went to the police. Do not be fooled, Baikie was not a debonair, Catch Me If You Can style impersonator but a craven opportunist. By not simply stealing Buchannan’s paintings but by impersonating the artist himself, Baikie significantly impacted Buchannan’s professional and personal life.

The case went to trial in 2013 and Baikie was sentenced to 150 hours community service and ordered to pay $5000 as an emotional harm payment.

Buchanan is nationally, one of New Zealand’s better known contemporary artists. But when you look at artists who are more well-known in local communities, or particular regions of New Zealand, the reporting on crimes against art that effect these artists is thin on the ground.

Obviously, not everything makes it into Three News or Stuff. But what this lack of reporting creates is a further lack of understanding that art crime is something that can affect any artist or their family, any dealer gallery and any collector. As a member of the New Zealand art world you may not get your stories told but you can still get screwed over all the same.

Souzie Speerstra is a talented, self-taught, and well published Hahei biased artist who has struggled through a number of experiences with crimes against her art.

Beginning her artistic career as a Photolithographer, the “years of exposure to successful advertising influenced the composition, the colour and the graphic nature of my paintings…being especially obvious in my geometric style.” Speerstra began painting in 1990, her preferred medium being acrylic on canvas, she commonly deals with regional subject matter; landscapes and seascapes. She sights that “here, in New Zealand, we have constant contact with the water and I find it an important feature of our way of life. I have an island mentality and love Kiwiana–the boat, the bach – the experience and thrill of being brought up here with the freedom and activities of a Kiwi youth.” Her work is widely known throughout Auckland and the Coromandel Peninsula.

When describing her work, Speerstra reveals that “as with a great number of other artist’s my dyslexia also plays a major role in shaping my works and intensifies my focus as I paint.” Speerstra produces two predominant styles of painting; “my original heavily textured style and my more modern geometric one. Both sharing the intense colour, textures and layers of glazing yet still maintaining their individuality.” By exhibiting in Dealer galleries for most of her artistic career, Speerstra admits that this has “brought a more professional slat to my approach to art” but that “the most influential factor in my art will always be my passion to create it…without the love of art nothing else is of any consequence.”

At the beginning of her career in the early 1990’s, Speerstra had her first exhibition of fresh, raw and vibrant paintings and her first encounter with art crime, in a Queen Street gallery in Auckland. The day after the exhibition, Speerstra returned to the gallery only to discover that the gallery owner had emptied the gallery overnight and disappeared with her work.

Speerstra was devastated. This betrayal was a huge hit to her self-esteem and severely impacted her personal life as she was left feeling like she was nothing. As a single mum trying to raise a 2 year old son, Speerstra was unfairly stripped of her livelihood and was faced with a mortgage and bills to pay and declining eftpos cards.

Surprisingly, Speerstra soon discovered that the gallery owner had returned all the works of well-known artists like Louise Henderson and then vanished with all the works by the ‘unknown’ artists. “I saw no money from my sales but did manage to track him down and get my unsold work back.” Speerstra sought the help of fellow artists and also the non-profit group Artists Alliance, which was newly established in 1991. There was only so much that could be done for her and in the end it was down to Speerstra to get her works back herself.

Speerstra discovered that the gallery owner’s assets such as his house were all in his mother’s name, “he had so much beautiful artwork… and got to keep it all…. a few years later I heard he’d opened a new gallery.”

From this initial experience with art crime, Speerstra became acutely aware of the lack of protection and rights in place for artists. This dose of reality only made Speerstra more determined and reminded her of the importance of artists sticking together and looking out for each other. She explained that “in the end you have to suck it up and move on or it will destroy you. Its soul destroying. But you learn from it, you learn to trust your galleries.”

Just as Speerstra recovered from her first experience with art crime she was hit by another. This time it was on an international scale. In 1992, Speerstra was asked to provide half a dozen works that would be exhibited alongside other examples of Pacific art in the opening of the new Singaporean international airport.

Speerstra’s gallery at the time paid her for the use of her works but lost control of the works once they were shipped overseas. There was one work in particular, a self-portrait of Speerstra, which she had not wanted to be sent away. In a miscommunication the work was packed up with the others and sent to the exhibition. The self-portrait ended up being used to promote the Year of the Woman and was reproduced on the cover of a dairy that was provided as a gift to first class passengers coming through the new airport, and also as a backdrop in photo booths where diplomats could have their photos taken, while the exhibition was running.

Speerstra’s other works were also displayed with price tags that were over four times the amount she had been originally paid. She recalled that “I had a few phone calls at night from overseas asking how much my paintings cost. If I remember correctly, they had marked them up by 700%.” The gallery representing Speerstra was never paid for the works that were ‘sold’ at the exhibition.

About a year later, Speerstra’s gallery sent a representative over to Singapore to talk to the people who had run the exhibition. Sitting in the office of a Singaporean solicitor, the galleries representative admired the vibrant self-portrait of Speerstra hanging on the wall behind the Singaporean’s desk. Shockingly, the Singapore solicitor attempted to claim that all 5 of Speerstra’s paintings had been stolen. In response to this revelation “the guy reached over the desk, removed my portrait from the wall and walked out… It now hangs in my hall.” Unfortunately, Speerstra’s other works were never found.

But the most distressing incident suffered by Speerstra is one that reveals a complete disregard for an artist’s lively hood. Making an artist wait 8 months to be paid for an exhibition is a clear demonstration of the vulnerability of artists and the power imbalance between artists and greedy dealers. Speerstra explains that “I was paid after ringing his wife and begging…I had just had the power officially cut off on my house.”

Cases like Speerstra’s cause the romantic, comedic and light hearted tales of art crime to disintegrate. In the same way, that the proportion of work that ends up hung in international galleries is but a tiny percentage of all art, this is what art crime really is. It is local artists trying to make a living off of their talents and passions and instead getting a face full of mud because they are not overly wealthy or have the sufficient legal training to protect themselves.

Art crime is a fascinating phenomenon that goes far deeper that the inaccurate, light hearted and romanticised accounts we are presented with on a regular basis. These puffed up representations are a hindrance rather than informative in the field of art crime, as it masks and distracts from an abundance of incidents that don’t get a first glance let alone a second. Speerstra’s experiences are not isolated incidents, she said to me that if I were to speak to any artist I would get a response like hers. The localised occurrences of art crime is something I feel needs a lot more attention. There is a need here for more to be done to protect artists; both their works and their livelihoods.

Morrissey-Brown, Amanda. “Forgers, Thieves and Conmen: A Brief History of Art Crime in New Zealand. The Pantograph Punch, July 7, 2015.


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