Treasure box (waka huia)

19th century
Artist Unidentified

Object Place: New Zealand; Object Place: Aotearoa


58.42 cm (23 in.)

Accession Number


Medium or Technique

Wood, pigment, haliotis shell

On View

Arts of Asia, Oceania, and Africa Gallery (Gallery 177)


Africa and Oceania



Chiefs used containers such as this to store personal property and valuable family heirlooms, among them nephrite pendants, ear ornaments, and bone combs. Often referred to as feather boxes, the receptacles also held the black-and-white tail feathers of the huia bird (Heteralocha acutirostris), which served as hair decoration emblematic of high rank. Since the boxes hung from the rafters in chiefs’ houses, their undersides were visible and were usually as elaborate as the lids. An owner could pass the box down as a family heirloom or give it as an honored gift to someone special. The object sometimes also received its own name. As personal possessions of chiefs, the container and its contents became imbued with tapu. Three types of treasure boxes have been distinguished; this example is a wakahuia, more frequent in central and eastern North Island. All surfaces of the oblong container and its detachable lid are embellished with raised reliefs of double spirals and intertwined pattern called unaunahi. Projecting from each end is a carved figure with a schematic body, aggressive features, and shell eyes. This box was collected about 1864-66 at a time when Maori relief carving became increasingly elaborate.


Between 1864 and 1866, collected in New Zealand by Major General Horatio Gordon Robley (b. 1840 – d. 1930); 1902, sold by Robley to the Königlich Zoologisches, Anthropologisch-Ethnographisches Museum, later the Museum für Völkerkunde, Dresden (inventory no. 13813) [see note]; 1987, exchanged by the Museum für Völkerkunde with Everett Rassiga (dealer; b. 1922 - d. 2003), Bern. Morris Pinto (b. 1925 – d. 2009), Geneva and New York. May 26, 1992, sold by Tambaran Gallery, New York, to William and Bertha Teel, Marblehead, MA; 1994, year-end gift of William and Bertha Teel to the MFA. (Accession Date: January 25, 1995)

NOTE: Purchased in 1902 with the financial support of Arthur Baessler (b. 1857 – d. 1907), Eberswalde, Germany.

Credit Line

Gift of William E. and Bertha L. Teel