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National | Auction

Rare tail feather of extinct New Zealand huia goes under the auction hammer

A tail feather of a extinct huia bird is expected to fetch thousands at an Auckland culture auction.

The extremely rare single feather is part of Webb’s live Material Culture auction that has arts, crafts, and designs from indigenous peoples on Monday.

The beautifully preserved rare and highly coveted huia feather is one of the attractions at Monday’s auction. One sold in 2020 for $8000 - making it the world’s most expensive feather ever, surpassing the feather of an American bald eagle, which sold at the same auction for $4k.

Leah Morris, the head of decorative arts at Webbs Auction, said the huia tail feather was part of a private collection.

“So we don’t know where exactly it came from. However, the last confirmed huia sighting was in 1907 in the Tararua Ranges,” Morris told the Herald.

“The feather we have is from the tail. Huia feathers were highly valuable and exchanged for other valuable goods and symbolised mana and prestige.

“It is framed behind anti-reflective protective glass, the feather itself is 205x45mm and in great condition.”

The feather is a Y-registered object, meaning Manatū Taonga Ministry of Culture & Heritage, Auckland War Memorial Museum, Tāmaki Paenga Hira, hold a permanent record of the item recognising its importance and it can only be purchased by registered collectors and not leave New Zealand without express permission from the ministry.

Huia tail feathers were given to high-ranking Māori chiefs and their whānau in pre-European times, and their popularity dramatically increased after the Europeans arrived, partially leading to the bird’s demise.

The huia was a small endemic New Zealand songbird of the wattlebird family and was known for its jumping abilities and beautiful plumage.

In pre-contact times, high-ranking individuals would wear huia tail feathers in their hair but eventually, the blue-green metallic sheen of these items became more widely popularised among Maōri and Pākehā.

Huia feathers are highly prized, amongst the most expensive feathers in the world.

The huia feathers were often exchanged for other goods such as pounamu and shark teeth, or given as tokens of friendship and respect. They were stored in intricately carved boxes called waka huia, which were hung from rafters and whose craft has gone on to influence contemporary expressions of industrial and architectural design in New Zealand.

Through this trade the feathers reached to the far north and far south of Aotearoa.

The tail feathers became popular amongst Pākehā in Britain when the Duke of York was pictured wearing a huia feather in his hat during a visit in 1901. The last reported sighting is said to have been sometime between 1907 and 1920.

Other auction items include objects from diverse regions of the world, including Aotearoa, Africa, Australia, Asia, South America, Melanesia, and Polynesia.

The live auction is this Monday, May 20 at 6.30pm – Webb’s Auckland Gallery, 33a Normanby Rd, Mount Eden.

Joseph Los’e is an award winning journalist and joined NZME in 2022 as Kaupapa Māori Editor. Los’e was a chief reporter, news director at the Sunday News newspaper covering crime, justice and sport. He was also editor of the NZ Truth and prior to joining NZME worked for urban Māori organisation Whānau Waipareira.

- NZ Herald