Abstract

This article discusses the auction market for certain kinds of taonga Māori (Māori treasures or cultural property). The social, political, and economic tensions that emerge from the national regulation of the auction market for Māori artifacts are framed by the complex political dynamic in Aotearoa / New Zealand of biculturalism: a Treaty-based political contract between Māori (indigenous people of Aotearoa) and Pākehā (settlers in colonial New Zealand, primarily of European descent), subject to continual negotiation. The antiquities market, which includes Māori artifacts, is carefully regulated by the government in keeping with (ever-shifting) understandings of Crown sovereignty over national cultural heritage. Interventions by Māori activists and curators complicate this notion of sovereignty and assert a primacy of indigenous title. I argue that these idiosyncratic interventions, within the political context of biculturalism, alter the very form of the market, undermining perceived dichotomies between taonga and commodity, indigenous and market values. Eventual auction results reflect a synthesis of complex intercultural negotiation and opposition between activists, dealers, auctioneers, and collectors. The case studies here raise important issues around the relationship among value, social and political relations, and the form and substance of the marketplace.

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