Maori Feather Box : Tribal art at its best

Posted on by Richard
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The Maori Feather Box also called a Maori Treasure Box is wonderful example of just how good containers can be in Polynesian Art. They are extremely collectable form of tribal art and do come up regularly for sale in the major Tribal Art and Pacific Art auctions.

The Maori Feather Box has been documented to have been forged on several occasions by James Edward Little (1876 – 1953). He was an antiques dealer and tribal art restorer who lived in Torquay England and specialized in making and selling Tribal Art and Polynesian art.

Little’s fake  maori art / Maori Feather Boxes were so good he fooled museum directors, scholars and polynesian art collectors alike. His best work were direct copies of authentic Maori art, including several Maori Feather Boxes. His master plan was to steal Polynesian Art from museums, copy the pieces accurately, replace them with fakes and sell the originals on. As a carver his work was brilliant but as a thief he was hopeless and caught in 1915 after he stole a decorated Maori Feather Box from a Wiltshire museum and substituted the original for one of his fakes. He was arrested and sent to prison for six months for theft but never convicted of Forgery.

His forgeries of Maori Art still surface occasionally and are of a high quality and of course nearly 100 years old.

The following information on Maori Feather Boxes or Maori Treasure Boxes is a partial extract from Polynesian Art at Auction 1965 – 1980 by Charles W. Mack, which I hope you will find informative.

“Treasure boxes , were favorite collectables of Europeans, pakeha , visitors to New Zealand. Their size made them convenient to to collect and carry back to Europe, where they served as useful storage containers, such as sewing baskets. No doubt the graphic depiction of the sexual coupling – so persuasive in Maori Art – incorporated in the carving of these boxes served also to titillate the fancy of the Victorian Europeans.

By the mid 19th century, the Maori were making numbers of these not only for there own use but also for sale to these foreigners.

maori feather box

Square Maori feather Box

Treasure boxes, frequently called feather boxes, were meant to store the rare and highly valued black and white tail feathers of the wattlebird, known to the Maori as the huia bird . These feathers, worn in the hair of both male and female high – born, served as a symbol of social rank. The Maori often placed tobacco leaves, introduced to New Zealand in the early 19th century, in these containers to repel insects from entering and eating the stored feathers. Other valued personal possessions were also deposited in these containers for safe keeping such as Hei Tiki and other greenstone ornaments as well as combs ( heru ) and, in the case of the larger boxes, greenstone short clubs ( mere pounamu ).

Maori Feather Box

Oval Maori Feather Box

On either end of these boxes are usually carved outward facing Tiki figures, the necks of which served as lugs, from which the waka huia were hung on cords from the roof rafters of houses. The bottoms, being the most visible part of the box when suspended, are as lavishly incised as the sides and tops. For this reason, when one finds boxes in which the incised design is incomplete, it is, in nearly all cases, the sides and the tops that are unfinished.

The most obvious stylistic difference in the overall form of these boxes is that some are clearly rectangular while others are oval. Many people consider the rectangular boxes to be of an earlier form than the more common oval ones. However in the British Museum there are two waka huia – one rectangular and the other oval- collected by Captain Cook in the 1770’s. It is evident then that both the oval and rectangular forms are pre-contact styles. In the 19th Century, the oval style of Maori feather box became more fashionable and therefore more commonly found in collections.

Specious attempts have been made to divide waka huia into geographical / tribal styles, based largely on collection locality. Three facts, however, complicate locality identification and thereby render this method unsatisfactory. First, early European collectors for the most part, did not record collecting localities, thus only a small percentage of known boxes are identified as to locality. Second and perhaps more importantly, the Maori would trade amongst themselves for waka huia from other districts, so that even if a collection locality is recorded, it is not clear whether the box was made there or simply collected there. Third, Maori carvers were less parochial, artistically speaking, than other Polynesian artists and would, particularly in the 19th century, assimilate carving styles from other districts into their own style. Thus it is impossible to separate tribal styles based on collection locality.”


Maori Feather Box

Note the Hole behind the Head

Rectangular Maori Treasure Box are rarer than oval ones but both are pre-contact styles.

If a Maori Feather Box is not completely carved it should be the top or sides that remain uncarved not the bottom.

There should be a whole behind the head of the figure so it can be tied to the rafters or at least a notch under the chin so that the box could be tied close if it has just the head.

The oval style of Maori feather box were more popular than the rectangular shape in the 19th century.

Many were made for the tourist trade in the 19th century.

James Little made many fake maori art pieces including Maori feather box, and they are hard to tell from the real thing. You don’t want to buy one identical to one in a small British museum collection.

Feather boxes that can have the lid tied to the box to stop treasures falling out is a good sign.

A Featherbox lid normally only fits on one way around. If it fits both ways look carefully

Maori Feather Box

Note the Ochre and Black

Originally some Maori Feather boxes were painted in Ochre. Residue of the correct coloured ochre is a good sign



Maori Feather Box

Fake Maori feather Box?

James Little featherbox?








Maori Feather Box

Fake Maori Feather Box

Fake feather box probably by Jeff Liversidge (famous new guinea Tribal art forger) Note the patina is wrong and the eyes are wrong and just the general carving feel of it.






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