Authenticity and ownership of Hongi Hika's musket questioned

7:30 am on 13 May 2021

A stoush is brewing over the authenticity of a musket, purported to have belonged to the great Ngāpuhi chief Hongi Hika, which is expected to fetch over $100,000 at an auction on Monday.

The musket purportedly owned by Hongi Hika going up for auction.

The musket purportedly owned by Hongi Hika going up for auction. Photo: Webbs

The auction house, Webb's, insists it is the real deal and said the previous owner did three months of research to prove it.

But even if the musket is indeed authentic, a descendent of Hongi Hika has questions about how it was obtained and whether it should be sold.

A finely crafted musket was gifted to Hika by none other than King George IV when the chief visited London in 1820.

After his death in 1828, the firearm passed onto Hika's son-in-law, Hone Heke, and likely accompanied him on many of his campaigns in defence of Ngāpuhi territory. It may even have been present at the signing of the Treaty of Waitangi.

At some stage - probably some years following Heke's death in 1850 - the gun left Māori ownership and entered a private collection in Melbourne, where it remained for generations.

It's the uncertainty around this stage of the musket's journey that has raised some eyebrows.

Historian and military veteran Brent Kerehona Pukepuke-Ahitapu has been researching Hika's 1820 trip to England and has documents from the Royal Archive which he said describes a different musket to the one being auctioned.

The documents in question are original invoices charged to King George IV, by gun maker Ezekiel Baker and John Andrews, which describe the gun as one doubled barrelled sporting gun with "two large brass plates, letting stock with the names and titles engraved on them, engraving the crowns and letters GA on the sliver thumb piece."

Additionally, Kerehona Pukepuke-Ahitapu also obtained the Carlton House Armory records - the place where the gun was gifted - which described the gun as;

"Double barrelled with the makers name on them that has a Brown wooden stock, a steel heel, silver thumbpiece engraved with Royal arms and GR. But most importantly it has the exact wording of the brass plaque on Hongi's firearm so that basically says 'given by His Majesty King George, the fourth King of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, to Shungee the King of Ngāpuhi, New Zealand, November 13th, 1820."

Kerehona Pukepuke-Ahitapu said photos on the Webb's website show a number of inconsistencies compared to the recorded descriptions.

Musket detail.

Musket detail. Photo: Webbs

"From my sort of evidence and what I've seen this is an indication that it's not the gun that the King gave on that day."

He said Hika had several muskets in his possession but the gun that is up for auction is not the one gifted by King George IV.

Webb's head of decorative art Ben Erren disputes this and said a previous owner carried out three months of research into the history of the musket.

"There's three or four books that they've used, and the titles of those are in the cataloguing information online and in the physical catalogue."

Erren said there is detailed lithography which proves the authenticity.

"In the early 19th century, early mid-19th century there was a lot of really detailed and really beautifully executed lithography which clearly shows Hongi Hika and Hone Heke in possession of a weapon that is absolutely identical to this and does not match the description that he [Brent Kerehona Pukepuke-Ahitapu] has given in anyway."

Erren said he'd welcome the opportunity to speak with Kerehona Pukepuke-Ahitapu and would be keen to see the document's he's obtained.

"I wouldn't present this gun at auction if I wasn't confident that it is what I'm saying it is, you know, it would be a foolish exercise for an auction house to go down that route purely because it would be very bad for our reputation."

Authenticity aside, a direct descendent of Hika, Haami Piripi, said he has no idea how the musket came into possession of a private collector.

"I think the only means that they could have been acquired was illegal or illicit means. I can't see any rationale or reason why any descendant of Hongi Hika or Hone Heke or any of the whānau would ever, ever concede that and accept that such an important marker in our history should be traded."

Piripi said the artefact is of great importance and should be protected, not sold to private collectors.

"That's probably one of the most important artefacts in our history and yet here it is up for auction, nobody seems to really give a hoot about it"

"I would have thought that, as a country, we want to salvage that sort of artefact and hold it up as an icon of our historical provenance."

He said if it is the musket that was gifted to Hika by the King of England, it's of great importance to him, to the decedents of Hika and to Aotearoa.

"It's already had an emotional response right across the descendants throughout the country who are already onto it, and I imagine that we're trying to do something about it."

Piripi said it is offensive and wants to see New Zealand authorities step in.

"To have such a major and important artefact being sold like it's some kind of sheep auction, you know, this is much, much more than people have really put it down to being and I think it needs to be recognised and held up as a significant aspect of our history."

Erren acknowledged it was very difficult to be certain about what happened to the musket when it came into Pākehā possession.

"We have no record of that far back, you know, is the is the honest answer, we know where it turned up. My knowledge of its history, or the first that I knew as far back as it goes with me, is the auction that it was purchased in, prior to that I don't have any information."

RNZ contacted Webb's auction house on Tuesday and since then Erren said they have reached out to Ngāpuhi.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with iwi. We really would like to engage in meaningful dialogue and, if we can see the safe return of these objects to the iwi, then we will most certainly as an auction house do everything in our power to facilitate that, because what reason would we have to act otherwise?

"We're just the one that's facilitating the sale of this piece, but we would like to see it go to the right people and we are taking every necessary measure that we can to ensure that that happens."

The auction is set to take place on Monday 17 May at 6.30pm.