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National | Art

Māori portrait to return from UK after decades

The previous owners were unaware of the painting’s importance, the auctioneer says.

A Māori portrait by renowned artist Vera Cummings is set to return to New Zealand after at least six decades.

The portrait was sold in the UK for NZD$3790 (1800 pounds) to an online bidder from New Zealand by Richard Winterton Auctioneers.

It depicts a Māori man with a tā moko wearing a pounamu hei-tiki pendant.

Cataloguer and auctioneer David Fergus said the previous owners of the painting were not aware of its importance, and did not know how it had travelled to the United Kingdom.

“I think the person that had originally owned it had passed away, and when they were clearing the house, they found the painting in a drawer. They’d never seen it before.”

He himself was not aware of its value at first glance.

“It needs a good clean and there’s a little bit of damage, and I wasn’t expecting any high hopes for it. And then when I started researching through the art auction databases, I was stunned to find that she’s highly regarded, and it’s actually worth some money. It was a nice surprise.”

The winning bidder beating competition in Australia and Fergus said it was fitting that the portrait was going back to New Zealand.

“I don’t know who has bought it personally, but I like to think that it will get shown to a wider audience once it does get back, because it deserves to be seen.”

New Zealand Vera Cummings was known for her portraits of Māori people.

Fergus estimated the work was painted in the 1930s or 1940s, when Māori portraiture was not thought of as valuable.

“It was painted at a time when new Zealand indigenous people were not thought of as being highly regarded at all. Most people thought they weren’t worthy - ‘why would you want to paint somebody like that, why aren’t you painting the mayor?’”

“So there’s not many early portraits of indigenous Māori people.”

Cummings sold her portraits as souvenirs as they were not high value.

“There’s probably a few tucked away waiting to be discovered - but she wasn’t a prolific artist,” Fergus said

Cummings was born in Thames in 1891. At the age of 11, she was one of the youngest students to receive a scholarship to attend Elam School of Fine Arts where she studied under renowned portrait artist CF Goldie.

After graduation she continued to paint alongside Goldie and frequently depicted the same people, often elderly Māori from a hostel near the Auckland suburb of Parnell.

She died in Auckland in 1949, aged 58.

Her work ‘Portrait of a Māori Woman’ is part of the collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki.

- RNZ