“Epic” is a word that comes up a lot when people talk about the story of the Motunui epa — and in Rachel Buchanan’s telling of that story in her new book Te Motunui Epa, the description seems apt.
The epa are five wooden panels carved in the late 1700s by Taranaki tūpuna, and then hidden in a swamp around 1820 to protect them from northern invaders. They were rediscovered in 1971, sold illegally by the finder to a dealer from England, who then exported them illegally to New York, where they were picked up by George Ortiz, a descendant of Bolivian tin-mining magnates, and a big fan of Pacific art who wasn’t too fussed about international conventions on illegally exported cultural objects.
There’s an entire book full of dramatic twists and turns in the epa’s journey and final return home in 2014 — but in this extract, the focus is on George Ortiz the man who housed and, by all accounts, loved the epa for four decades.
George Ortiz had a particular way of describing his whakapapa. He used to say: “I am descended from an illiterate Bolivian peasant on the one side and the Emperor Barbarossa on the other.”
By the time George was born in Paris in 1927, the whānau’s new money was on the way to becoming old. But there was plenty of it. His family was living on one of the most expensive streets in the world. Their neighbours included the Rothschild and Onassis whānau. Brother Jaime maintained the family tradition for collecting, and would amass paintings — impressionist, post-impressionist and old masters — and later golf memorabilia, golf courses and playing cards. And their mother’s liking for fine art and collecting remained undiminished.
When George was 15, Salvador Dalí painted Graziella’s portrait. Mrs Ortiz de Linares shows a fierce, pale, dark-haired woman in a gauzy veil that covers part of her head and shoulders. Her torso emerges from a bank of clouds held up by a squad of contorted cupids. The portrait was painted in 1942, at the peak of the Second World War. Paris was occupied by the Germans. Spain was controlled by fascists. The turmoil and killing were extreme, but Madame Ortiz was composed enough to sit for a portrait with an expression on her face that says, “So?”
Money meant the whole whānau had their heads in the clouds.
George was educated in France and England, and later studied philosophy at Harvard. His family had sent him to boarding school at Eton, the elite Anglican school for boys near Windsor. It was not easy for him. He was short and dark, very Bolivian. Some of the English boys called him “the monkey”.
He began collecting at 17: little objects, small bronzes. Then in 1949, at age 22, he spent two months in Florence, mostly at the Uffizi Gallery, gazing at the paintings, searching and seeking. He went on to Greece, and it was here that he made his first special purchase. “I hoped that by acquiring ancient Greek objects I would acquire the spirit behind them,” he recalled. “Like all young men I had my problems. I lost my faith. I studied philosophy. I was a Marxist. I was seeking after God, looking for the truth and I went to Greece in 1949 and there I found my answer.”
Later, George would describe the anguish he felt at being born into such great privilege. He was hunting around for a purpose, a way to seek his own fortune rather than living off someone else’s. It was, perhaps, the inherited hurt of being snubbed in Bolivian high society, the petty, racist discrimination the Don had endured. Or maybe the Patiños felt a sort of inferiority about where their wealth came from? Not gold, not silver, not even bronze. It was tin, the lowest of the low, that made George’s grandfather the “Andean Rockefeller”, as the Financial Times called him.
With collecting, George found a way to plug into permanence, pull up the roots of other people’s cultures and plant them in his adopted backyard in Europe.
Mediterranean archaeology fascinated him. Greek art, Etruscan, Sardinian and Roman art, art from the start of the Byzantine civilisation, Scythian art, art from the Caucasus, Sumerian art — here was the evidence of the origins of western civilisation. He believed that all art was a projection of the ego, “a desire for immortality, a need for absoluteness and beauty”, but Greek art was special because it “succeeded in expressing the maximum of perfection while accepting the ‘finitude’ of man and his scale of things”.
Don Simón Patiño extracted minerals. George Ortiz extracted meaning. Pickaxe versus eye.
In 1961, George Ortiz, Robert Hecht Jnr and three Italian dealers were accused of receiving stolen property from so-called tombaroli (tomb robbers), clandestine diggers and smugglers. Hecht, a dealer in classical antiquities, was at the centre of a network that sold stolen treasures to private collectors and public institutions like the J. Paul Getty Museum, the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the British Museum. The charges were brought in Italy, and after 15 years of cases and appeals, Ortiz was given a suspended sentence. For a time, he was unable to return to Italy.
These men told themselves it was preservation, not provenance, that mattered most. The treasures they possessed were actually owned by the world. “As an owner of objects like this,” Ortiz said, “you have a moral duty and responsibility towards the civilisation which will follow you.”
He believed in museums without walls, in antiquities and other cultural objects as “the shared heritage of mankind”. He was opposed to international conventions to protect illegally exported cultural objects because, he said, “art is cross-cultural and, in many aspects, timeless”. There was no such thing as a natural location for an artwork, no reason an artwork should stay in the place it was made. He had treasures, more than a thousand works of art, from dozens of cultures, one of the finest collections of antiquities in private hands. His wish, he would later say, was that people would look at these objects and sculptures, and learn to listen.
Give the work of art a chance to speak and show you what it is. That was his mantra.
In the mid-1960s, George moved from France to Switzerland and, with the help of art dealers Charles Ratton (Paris) and John Hewett (London), began expanding into African and Oceanic art. The glamour of his life is revealed in two photographs taken in 1969. In one, he is holidaying aboard a yacht in Greece with John Hewett. In another, he and his wife Catherine are dressed up for a costume party — “Baron de Rede’s Bal oriental” — in Paris. Their Afghan outfits were borrowed from the writer Bruce Chatwin.
Several years later, Ortiz made his first visit to the Pacific. In about 1971 he travelled to New Zealand. “To a Westerner the art of the Pacific, particularly that of Polynesia, is like an escape, a search for purity and truth, a renewal,” he would later write.
By the time he flew to New York to meet our tūpuna in 1973, he had already announced to a stunned audience of art connoisseurs in Moscow that he considered himself to be “the greatest collector of ancient art in the world”.
Buy, sell or exchange. Hard rubbish day. Dumpster diving. Not exactly. The Patiño mokos made their trades in auction rooms or New York apartments, between the courses of a long lunch in London, with a handshake, a raised eyebrow or the nod of a head.
Ask me no questions, I’ll tell you no lies.
On 11 May 1973, Ortiz flew the epa to his home near Geneva. He was excited to have our tūpuna with him, but the love affair was private. As part of the condition of sale negotiated in New York, he had agreed not to show the carvings to New Zealand archaeologists or any other third parties for two years. A most unusual caveat and one that must have raised an alarm — or at least a niggle of uncertainty — for a collector as experienced as he was.
The home he shared with Catherine and their children was a mansion set amid acres of forest, yet it was only minutes from a street that sold watches and diamonds. There was a swimming pool with a pavilion but you had to walk a quarter of a mile to get there. Inside the house there were many beautiful, beautiful things. And downstairs there was a room that was set up like a museum but you couldn’t really tell it was there. It was as good as a museum. It had the glass cases and the special lighting. It was extremely impressive.
The epa were shocked to see how many relatives were already there. Our tūpuna recognised relatives in the masks and ancestral figures from Melanesia, the Easter Islands, the Austral Islands, Rarotonga, Cook Islands and Aotearoa, specifically Whakatōhea. Some of the rangatira were in a bad way. The lights had nearly gone out. It was the homesickness that did it. The yearning. The hurt. The boredom too. Where was the life support? Not much going on over there in Geneva. No oratory to speak of, just the whispered chat between all of the ancestors. They liked to razz each other up. Nothing like an insult to keep the pilot light flickering.
The epa stayed with Ortiz, in the family home, for the next four years. They enjoyed the company of the other taonga, the sounds of the children in the big house, the beauty of the forest and the lake. Then the buzzing hit hard. Everyone felt it.
George and Catherine emitted this sound like the wind on a wire, and the sound went into their bodies and it damaged every nerve and cell. Right down deep. Cicadas in their blood, behind their eyeballs, inside their mouths. The metal claw of a ditch digger scraped across their faces, and a terrible black light flooded in.
Their daughter was taken. Darling Graziella, only five years old, named for her grandmother, was in the back seat of the family station wagon, ready to go to kindergarten, when two men attacked the driver and snatched her. She was chloroformed, then taken away across the French border in a stolen sports car. The kidnappers got a message to Ortiz, demanding a ransom of US$2 million. If he spoke with the police, his daughter would die.
The epa covered their ears to block out the buzzing horror.
George and Catherine Ortiz went on television to plead for their daughter’s life. “Graziella is a delightful little girl, an innocent little girl who is life itself. Please don’t let her suffer too much.”
Although Ortiz was a wealthy man, he did not have the sum demanded to hand. In desperation, he had to ask his mother Graziella for a loan of the $2 million. It was not easy to do that. But when the ransom was paid the kidnappers left little Graziella beside the Geneva–Lausanne motorway. A barkeeper found the child there and returned her to her parents.
Newspapers reported that two Italians were responsible for the crime. Very little ransom money was recovered. A press photograph from 18 October 1977 shows Graziella on Catherine’s hip, small hands clasped around her mother’s neck. Catherine is smiling at the camera and the child is smiling too, slightly. George is staring at his wife and daughter, everything stretched thin; on his face an expression without a name.
He had to find a way to pay his mother back. His treasures, her money.
Ortiz took a walk through his whare. He visited the epa and the other old people, and they agreed to help out. They would be sold at auction to the highest bidders.
A Rarotonga wood figure. A Hawaiian wood figure (said to have been picked up by Captain Cook). A Pentecost Island wood mask. An Easter Island wood figure. A pair of New Caledonian wood door jambs. A Tahitian wood fly-whisk. A Benin bronze Aquamanile in the form of a Leopard. And a Lower Niger bronze figure with Bowl. A series of five Maori carved wood totaro [sic] wood panels forming the front to a food store (pataka). Classic Taranaki style.
Everyone was aflutter. The chairman of Sotheby’s, Peter Wilson, decided to take the auction himself at the company’s headquarters on New Bond Street, London. The 243 works, including the epa, were advertised as the finest collection of primitive art in private hands. They were also George Ortiz’s most treasured Oceanic acquisitions; the event would constitute a “heartbreaking sale” for their owner.
There was a lot of description involved. The gallery people had a special way of talking. A superlative language. The most beautiful. Very rare. Very old. Superb specimen. Masterpieces of Māori sculpture. Wonderful design. Incredible force. Baroque. Pre-European. Rapid duels to the death. The artist reveals a great mastery in the decoration work. Hidden treasures brought back by sailors in earlier times. The most important set of sculptures outside New Zealand. Very hard wood with a light brown and black patina.
There was a photo shoot. Red-pink backdrop, black shadows, gloing tōtara. All this dancing about to create an “atmosphere of engineered darkness enhanced by spotlights and evocative gritty colours”. The epa played along, for Ortiz’s sake, but there was an opportunity here to send some other messages too. Get their faces on the television, wake up some people back home.
The manaia leap up from page 122 of the hardcover catalogue. Lot 150. Startled faces, pointy foreheads. We can see the mountain. We can see the inside of the minds of the carvers. We can see the women and men carved there in the wood. We can see the tip of an index finger pointing out the perpetrators in a police line-up.
Not dead wood. Never dead wood.
The George Ortiz Collection of Primitive Works of Art Thursday, 29th June 1978, Sotheby Parke Bernet. The epa — “a Maori wood store front” – are the first item in the list of treasures at the front of the catalogue. Provenance: “Formerly the property of Mr. Robert Riggs, Philadelphia, who parted with them in 1966. He had originally purchased them in an antique shop in New-London, Conn., around 1935.” The New York Timesdescribed the epa as the prize item in the sale. They were valued at £300,000.
Our tūpuna were on the move again. Next stop, London. Wrapped, trapped, boxed and bound for market. The last remnants of the swamp had been dispelled. The new finding place was an antique shop in America. The new finder was a made-up man called Robert Riggs. He had not sold the epa either; he had parted with them, a gentle separation. This delicate new back story travelled with our tūpuna, a different kind of padding, like bubble wrap made from words.
Te Motunui Epa, by Rachel Buchanan, was published by Bridget Williams Books.
Rachel Buchanan (Taranaki) is a historian, archivist, journalist and curator, based in Melbourne. She is the author of The Parihaka Album: Lest We Forget, Stop Press: The Last Days of Newspapers, and Ko Taranaki Te Maunga.
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