Pictures tell story of multi-million dollar council art collections

3:49 pm on 2 March 2022

Six Picassos, four Dalis and 22 Rembrandts - and that is just one council.

Then there is the treasure trove of works from New Zealand's most prominent artists, including McCahon, Hotere, Lindauer and Goldie scattered around civic buildings from Northland to Southland.

Councils are quite the art collectors, even if they never meant, or care, to be.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett values art’s ability to start a conversation. Behind him is a Ralph Hotere print titled A Union Jack.

Marlborough Mayor John Leggett values art’s ability to start a conversation. Behind him is a Ralph Hotere print titled A Union Jack. Photo: Stuff / Scott Hammond / Supplied

There is about half a billion dollars worth of art sitting inside local government buildings, many with secret stories; from a stolen set of mayoral chains found hidden in a wall, to a city flag that went into space with the shuttle Discovery.

Some artworks were deemed "priceless", according to figures obtained under the Local Government Official Information and Meetings Act (LGOIMA).

Eight councils did not own art, or only owned artworks with "some local significance and sentimental value", but no financial value.

Seventeen councils had art, but did not know how much each item was worth. Most of the councils that did know refused to give the value of individual artworks, fearful of theft, saying it would cause a "material loss to the public". They instead shared the total value of their collection.

Some councils have pieces missing - Hamilton City Council has lost track of 318 of its artworks, and Tauranga City Council could not find 46 of its works during a recent stocktake because the pieces had either been "disposed of" or were missing from their usual spots.

The Marlborough District Council in 2020 budgeted $60,000 over two years to maintain and preserve its art collection, but did not spend that money, as reported by LDR on Wednesday, due to Covid-19. 

It would not provide the names of the artworks or the artists. However, one prized possession is understood to be a print called A Union Jack by Ralph Hotere - one of New Zealand's most influential artists.

It was one of three works given to each council in 1990 to mark 150 years since the Treaty of Waitangi/Te Tiriti o Waitangi was signed.

The council also has a formal loan agreement, not a "loose pact" as reported, with the Millennium Public Art Gallery to display its art.

Leggett said he valued art's ability to start a conversation.

"The first thing a lot of people do is look at the artwork in the room, so we always have a chat about it ... I've had a few people from the Marlborough Sounds go straight over to this [painting by Stanley Palmer] and tell me where it is or what they know about it."

Kiwi culture

Works by prominent New Zealand artists Hotere, Colin McMahon, Charles Frederick Goldie and Gottfried Lindauer are held by councils around the country.

A $3.2m Hotere mural has spent more than three years in storage at a secure location in Hamilton because there was no public space big enough for Hamilton City Council to display it.

The 8.5m-wide by 5m-high piece was created for and housed in Founders Theatre in Hamilton until it closed due to safety concerns in 2016. It was too big to display elsewhere, so will be kept under wraps until Waikato Regional Theatre opens in 2023.

The council owns another 30 artworks from Hotere, together valued at $1.65m, including some drawings for a mural.

Hamilton also takes the prize for the most out-of-this-world artwork - a city flag that went into space with the American space shuttle Discovery. The crew gifted it back to the city council. At the other end of the scale, the council also has a copy of A Divine Revelation Of Hell, which someone sent in the post.

The crew of the American space shuttle Discovery took a Hamilton flag into orbit during their mission, then gifted it back to Hamilton City Council.

The crew of the American space shuttle Discovery took a Hamilton flag into orbit during their mission, then gifted it back to Hamilton City Council. Photo: Stuff / Christel Yardley / Supplied

On top of the six Picassos, four Dalis and 22 Rembrandts in its public art collection, Auckland Council has 47 works from one of the country's most celebrated artists, Charles Frederick Goldie, best known for his studies of Māori dignitaries.

Half were gifted to the council by Goldie's family in 1995.

One of the paintings, A Noble Relic of a Noble Race, was donated by the Auckland Society of Arts in 1911. A work of the same name and subject, but painted 30 years later, sold for $1.3m in mid-2016.

Goldie's works are also held by Rotorua Lakes Council (11), Christchurch City Council (5), Timaru District Council (5), Whanganui District Council (3), and Dunedin City Council (3). Timaru's council estimated two of its Goldies were worth $1m.

Hastings has five mayoral portraits and two civilian portraits by Gottfried Lindauer, best known for his paintings of Māori political figures.

Horowhenua District Council has a Lindauer worth $185,000 among its 11 artworks, and Napier City Council's two artworks also include a Lindauer.

One of Lindauer's portraits was donated to the council-owned Nelson Provincial Museum last year after it was found sitting in a family dining room.

Far North District Council owns 22 artworks. One of them, stone sculpture Te Whiringa o Manoko by Chris Booth in Kerikeri is valued at $958,000 - more than the others combined.

The 11m-high work, built from stacked boulders, made headlines after the community complained it would reduce their green space. A compromise saw the sculpture erected at the entrance to a park.

New Plymouth District Council has a piece by Michael Smither, who held the record for the most expensive painting sold by a living New Zealand artist, while Matamata-Piako's council has two works by Peter McIntyre, the country's official war artist during World War II.

Masterton District Council chief executive Danielle Armstrong said the council had an unnamed watercolour by John Drawbridge - the man behind one of the Beehive's most iconic artworks, simply called The Beehive Mural - but was unsure how much it was worth.

Christchurch City Council has more than 7200 pieces of art in its collection, including a large number by Bill Sutton, a Christchurch artist famous for painting the Canterbury region.

Art valuer Neil Roberts, who was a senior curator at the Christchurch Art Gallery for almost three decades, said the council was gifted Sutton's estate when he died in 2000.

Sutton asked the council to keep his private art collection, but sell his other possessions and use the money to collect more artwork.

Roberts bought Sutton's house two years after his death, intending to leave it to the city for an artists-in-residence scheme, but reluctantly sold it to the Crown after the property was declared a red zone following the Canterbury earthquakes. The house was restored by the government and opened to the public this March.

"To my knowledge, he's the only artist from Christchurch to leave his entire estate to the public," Roberts said.

Timaru District Council has the famous World War II painting Simpson And His Donkey by New Zealand artist and soldier Horace Moore-Jones. It is valued at $500,000. It also has three paintings of legendary Timaru thoroughbred racehorse Phar Lap hanging on the walls, including one in the mayor's office.

Kāpiti District Council still owns a painting by convicted child sex offender Brendan Nolan, despite tearing down a tui sculpture made by the artist at the entrance of Paraparaumu Beach after his sentence.

The council bought the painting in 2010, two years before Nolan was jailed. Council place and space group manager Sacha Haskell said it decided to keep the painting because its subject - pioneer Māori writer, academic and local resident Jacquie Cecilia Sturm - was of important historical value.

Haskell said Sturm's family was contacted before the council made its decision, and influenced its verdict to keep it. The painting is on display at the Paraparaumu Library, north-east of Wellington.

Nearby, at Porirua City Council's art and heritage centre Pātaka, is a $300,000 Colin McCahon painting of white clouds on paper.

Pātaka director Reuben Friend said a staff member bought the work "way back in the day, when it was only worth $5000". She later bequeathed the painting to the council.

"Her estate gifted it to us on the agreement that we would not sell it, but rather care for it and show it to the local community," he said.

Is it art?

Nelson Mayor Rachel Reese has two sets of mayoral chains listed as "public art", because one set disappeared for three years.

The region's original gold-plated chain was stolen from the mayor's office in 1977, along with some liquor and presents destined for a Christmas party. The chain was worth $3000 (now about $22,000).

"The mayor of the day, Roy McLennan, offered a $500 reward for their return, which was quite significant at the time. There was a big hunt for them. Part of the Queen's Gardens duck ponds were drained, and metal detectors were used to sweep them," she said.

The reward jumped to $1000 two years later, for a month, while a new chain was made - this time with a new city crest made by Lord of the Rings ring maker and renowned Nelson jeweller Jens Hansen.

It was presented to McLennan in March 1980.

The original chains were found nine months later - almost three years after they were stolen - behind the wall of a house on Nile Street. They were damaged, despite being left in a case. The ribbon had significantly decayed and the metal had been stained by water.

Police assumed that the thief abandoned the chain because it was easily recognisable, so would have been difficult to sell, Reese said.

"For some reason the reward had expired by then, so the owners of the house didn't receive thanks - a decision I wouldn't have made."

An "elaborately carved" chair sits in the Hastings District Council's chambers, but how it ended up there is a mystery.

The chair is marked with "HBC" - thought to stand for the former Hastings Borough Council - but the council said a local theatre group, where the chair resided briefly, claimed it came from Napier Courthouse.

Gisborne District Council allowed residents to borrow originals from its HB Williams Memorial Library and "walk home with the work tucked under [their] arm", in what one council staffer suspected was the last service of its kind at a New Zealand library.

Council cultural activities manager Pene Walsh said some families had spots on their walls reserved for library paintings, which were changed every six weeks, so they could appreciate local art.

House sellers and landlords also hired out artwork to make homes look more desirable to prospective buyers and renters, Walsh said.

In the Tasman District, Richmond Library has a paper mache giraffe named "Geronimo" as the "guardian of the librarians".

A paper mache giraffe called Geronimo might not be the most expensive piece of public art in New Zealand – art owned by local councils – but he might be one of the most loved.

A paper mache giraffe called Geronimo might not be the most expensive piece of public art in New Zealand – art owned by local councils – but he might be one of the most loved. Photo: Stuff / Braden Fastier / Supplied

His creator, Nelson and Dunedin artist Rose Shepard, said she was in the middle of decorating a "really ugly" roller door in the library's children's section when she found out that one of the librarians loved giraffes.

"At the time I was creating these giant paper mache puppets for the Nelson Centre of Musical Arts' centennial ... so I made a giraffe to go with the mural, making it almost three-dimensional, but the librarian loved it so much it ended up in her office," Shepard said.

Dunedin City Council owns a house crammed full of arts and antiques - including tweezers and a 1921 Fiat 510 Tourer - after its owner bequeathed it to the council upon her death.

The house, called the Olveston, opened to the public in 1967.

Dunedin's council also has five stone sheep sculptures, three bronze penguins, two "sleeping lions", a trout, and a kurī dog.

Tucked away at Southland District Council is a limited edition medal collection which focused on the Sydney Olympic Games mascots from 2000 - Olly the kookaburra, Millie the echidna and Syd the platypus. The collection is worth $500.

One in six of Stratford District Council's artworks could be linked to William Shakespeare, born in the town's English namesake, Stratford-upon-Avon, including pictures of his birthplace and tomb.

One of Shakespeare's lines was "the object of Art is to give life a shape". Councils could argue they are doing their bit to help shape our lives.

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