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Priceless taonga stolen from Kaitāia museum returned after social media appeal

The theft of a priceless taonga from Kaitāia’s Te Ahu Museum had staff in shock, but a social media appeal has seen the kō (digging implement) returned, and the council may now have to increase security at the museum.

Museum Curator Whina Te Whiu said the theft occurred on Wednesday, February 14, but on reviewing security footage, it seems the alleged thief and two others cased the museum out the previous day.

Te Whiu said the kō, which was estimated at between 140-160 years old and used for digging kūmara, was displayed along with two other kō on a wall towards the back of the museum.

Te Whiu said she and the other museum staff and supporters were extremely saddened when the taonga was stolen - it had huge historical significance to the area - but delighted when it was returned.

“It was being used around the time of so many of our really important historical occasions (including the signing of Whakaputanga o te Rangatiratanga o Niu Tīreni and the Treaty of Waitangi). That was what really saddened us - it was so connected to our area. It was donated by Bells, who used to own the gardens that were historically used (by local Māori before European arrival).

“It tells of the historical items used to dig the earth - it’s what Te Ahu means, the earth. It was such a fertile place and this taonga gave that connection.’’

She said one of the museum’s strengths is that many of its exhibitions are not behind glass or bars and many can be touched - with supervision - to give visitors and school groups a tactile experience of the items, so they can literally hold history in their hands. It would be a shame if it now had to put everything behind glass, as that would diminish the experience.

Te Whiu was so outraged by the theft that she posted an emotional kōrero on social media explaining the hurt the theft had caused and its cultural and historical significance. Within six hours of her doing so on Tuesday the treasured kō was returned.

It was shared on a number of Far North social media sites and some reacted with the warning that the thief could expect some mākutu if it was not returned.

“For any museum director, the nightmare of discovering missing taonga, whether through theft or any other means, is an experience that stops the heart and wrenches the soul. It’s a rollercoaster of emotions - mostly the ugly ones - from the raw anguish and worry to the anxiety, anger, and the profound sense of failure. Questions flood in: Did we secure the taonga well enough? Were they displayed with the utmost care and respect? What did we do wrong?

“Initially, the focus naturally shifts to the one who executed the swift act of theft, snatching the precious taonga in mere minutes,” Te Whiu said.

“And, no matter what opinions you may hold regarding ‘museums’, whether they are viewed as symbols of European dominance, repositories of misappropriated artefacts, or even havens for stolen Māori treasures, it’s crucial to recognise that the history and ethos of Te Ahu Museum stand apart from such narratives. That’s just not our history, our present day or our future, okay. Enough said?

“And in the wake of this incident, amidst the turmoil and uncertainty, it’s crucial to remember the foundation of Te Ahu Museums existence - the unwavering support of this community. That, above all else, is what makes our museum not just special, but truly magnificent. Truly.”

Far North District Council spokesman Ken Lewis said the council was about to put out a press release with images of the suspected thief on Tuesday when news came through it had been returned.

Lewis said a third party had returned the kō after being contacted by the whānau of the person who took it.

‘’They gave it to the third party who then returned the item to us, and our understanding is that the person who took it is full of remorse and quite disturbed by what they did,’’ Lewis said.

He said the council will have to consider what new security measures are needed to prevent any similar thefts in the future, especially in light of the theft of a precious piece of kauri gum worth thousands of dollars from the Waitangi Treaty Grounds in November.

The kauri gum was returned, but Lewis said the council now had to consider if it was a copycat theft, part of a wider attack on museum items or a one-off.

“We are looking at security as that is really important to protect our taonga.”

In Māori tikanga, a mākutu (harm through spiritual powers) can be visited on people who steal taonga.