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by Richard Wolfe

Crazes for collecting ferns and stamps swept New Zealand in the 19th century. In the early 2000s collectors trawled garage sales, second-hand shops and the internet to indulge their passions for items as diverse as Barbie dolls, vintage embroidery and Crown Lynn pottery.

Early collecting

James Cook’s voyages

The European interest in collecting, for both personal and scientific reasons, came to New Zealand with British navigator James Cook. Joseph Banks, botanist on the Endeavour, first went ashore at Poverty Bay on 11 October 1769, and he and the ship’s other scientists gathered some 40 plant specimens. Ten days later at Anaura Bay, north of Tolaga Bay, he collected many more plants and shot ‘some most beautifull birds’.1

As well as New Zealand plant and animal life, Europe was fascinated by Māori. Among the examples of Māori art collected during Cook’s first voyage was a rei puta – a whale-tooth breast pendant. Māori traditionally kept prized personal items, such as huia feathers for decorating the hair and greenstone hei tiki (neck ornaments), in intricately carved wooden boxes. These were known as waka huia or papanou, and were hung from the rafters of houses. One such treasure box obtained on Cook’s first voyage is held by the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa in Wellington.

During his three voyages to the Pacific, Cook collected an estimated 2,000 specimens of Māori art and culture. These found their way into private and museum collections in Britain, Sweden, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

Proof of origin

The first piece of moa bone taken to London was shown to leading scientist Richard Owen. He did not believe it could be from New Zealand, and he was then shown some Māori artefacts which had been collected at the same time as the bone. He recognised them as ‘peculiar to the New-Zealanders’2 and accepted that the bone was from the same country, and from a bird similar in size to the ostrich.

Curiosities and specimens

Following the early European navigators, other individuals collected ‘curiosities’ in New Zealand. A small fragment of bone obtained by a flax trader in Poverty Bay was taken to London in 1839 and identified as being from a large and extinct flightless bird, soon to be known as the moa. Missionaries William Williams and William Colenso were also collecting large numbers of moa bones on the East Coast of the North Island, and these were shipped off to scientific experts in England. Native plants were collected by the likes of William Colenso, who sent specimens to scientists such as Joseph Dalton Hooker of the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, London.

Māori artefacts were desirable curiosities. James Butterworth of New Plymouth collected and traded these items from around 1867 until his death in 1903.

Collections on show

The 1851 Great Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in London, known as the first world fair, was a huge popular success. The first such event in New Zealand was the New Zealand and South Seas International Exhibition in Dunedin in 1865. It gave individuals the chance to show off their own collections. One of these was a display of 190 birds of Otago, amassed by James Hector, a geologist and later the first director of the Colonial Museum in Wellington.

Augustus Hamilton, the next director of the Colonial Museum, was also a keen collector. He displayed his own collection of sponges from Hawke’s Bay at the 1885 Industrial Exhibition in Wellington.

Supplying the fern craze

In the late 1890s Eric Craig’s Museum in Princes Street, Auckland, sold ferns for collectors. His specimens were mounted or unmounted, and in sets, boxes or albums with decorative covers. In 1901 Craig claimed to have the largest private collection in Australasia. He sold items sourced from New Zealand and around the Pacific, including shells, corals and kauri gum (rough, polished and made into ornaments), and had over 200 Māori carvings in stock.


Fern collecting was popular in New Zealand in the 19th century. Among the ferns shown at the 1865 exhibition in Dunedin was a collection made by students of St John’s College, Auckland. Various types of ferns – framed, pressed and bleached – were featured in the 1889–90 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition in Dunedin.

Stamp collecting started in New Zealand in the mid-1880s and became very popular, particularly with children and men. In the early 20th century postcards were another popular collectable.

  1. Banks’s journal, 21 October 1769, (last accessed 17 April 2012). Back
  2. Quoted in Richard Wolfe, Moa: The dramatic story of the discovery of a giant bird. Auckland: Penguin, 2003, p. 18. Back

Notable collectors

The best-known 19th- and early 20th-century collectors were George Grey, Thomas Morland Hocken and Alexander Turnbull. Each donated all or parts of their wide-ranging collections to public institutions in New Zealand. The contribution of private collectors, including lesser-known figures, to libraries and museums is noteworthy.

Scholarly praise

Medieval European manuscripts were a small but important part of George Grey’s collection. He acquired 27 of these, dating from the 12th to the 15th century. Jack Bennett, a New Zealand-born literary scholar at Oxford, wrote in the 1950s that with respect to the medieval manuscripts he ‘might have done better, and learnt more, by staying at home and taking the tram to the Auckland Public Library’1 rather than visiting the great medieval literature collections in London, Rome and Los Angeles.

George Grey

Politician and twice governor of New Zealand George Grey collected manuscripts, rare books, letters, art, photographs and ephemera relating to many countries (including New Zealand) and historical periods. In 1887 he donated 8,000 volumes to the Auckland Public Library. The Grey Collection at the library eventually numbered some 14,000 items.

Thomas Morland Hocken

Dunedin coroner Thomas Morland Hocken’s collection became the basis of the Hocken Library, which opened in 1910. Hocken displayed selections of his own material at the 1889–90 New Zealand and South Seas Exhibition, among them 173 items relating to the founding of the colony of New Zealand. He also showed 75 groups of Māori items, which included hei tiki (neck ornaments) and three canoe stern posts.

Alexander Turnbull

Another major collector was Alexander Turnbull of Wellington, who began acquiring books at the age of 17 and amassed New Zealand’s largest private library. His 55,000 volumes, along with many maps, pictures and manuscripts, were bequeathed to the nation on his death in 1918. The Alexander Turnbull Library in Wellington became part of the National Library of New Zealand in 1965.

Starting young

Young New Zealanders also had opportunities to show their collections in the industrial exhibitions of the 19th century. Edward Zohrab was highly commended for his coins, shells and birds’ eggs, entered in the juvenile class of the 1885 Exhibition in Wellington. According to the official record, his collections showed ‘great method in arrangement, and speak well for his appreciation of the rare and curious’.2

Other collectors

Other important but lesser-known New Zealand collectors included Auckland businessman Henry Partridge, who presented his entire collection of 70 Gottfried Lindauer portraits of Māori to the city of Auckland in 1915.

Publisher A. H. Reed collected bibles, manuscripts and the works of Samuel Johnson, all of which were donated to the Dunedin Public Library in 1948. His brother Frank Reed accumulated the largest collection outside France of books and manuscripts relating to French writer Alexandre Dumas. His collection went to the Auckland Public Library after his death in 1953.

Other important bibliophiles were Esmond de Beer of Dunedin, Henry Shaw of Auckland and Pat Lawlor of Wellington.

Collecting history

For some 60 years from the early 20th century Fred Butler collected items relating to the history of New Plymouth, his home town. He pasted birth and death notices clipped from local newspapers into scrapbooks. Butler’s record of early settlers is now housed in Puke Ariki Museum, along with an index of 20,000 reference cards. At one stage he had a library of an estimated 80,000 books, and was also a well-known quilt-maker.

Notable non-literary collectors included Victorian military man Thomas Broun, whose 13,000-strong beetle collection is held by the Auckland War Memorial Museum. From the 1930s Ronald and Zillah Castle of Wellington collected early and unusual musical instruments, and their collection of around 500 instruments (now also in the Auckland War Memorial Museum) was the largest of its type in Australasia and the Pacific. During his lifetime, Heaton Rhodes of Canterbury accumulated the world’s most complete collection of New Zealand stamps.

    • J. A. W. Bennett, quoted in E. H. McCormick, The fascinating folly: Dr. Hocken and his fellow collectors. Dunedin: University of Otago Press, 1961, p.13. Back
    • Official record, New Zealand Industrial Exhibition, 1885, Wellington. Wellington: Government Printer, 1886, p. 184. Back

20th-century collecting

Trade cards

New Zealand collectors had a new area of interest in the 1920s with the introduction of local cigarette cards. Most were reprints of cards from Britain (where they had first appeared in the 1880s), but sets were also produced in New Zealand on subjects such as birds, rugby players and racehorses. Cards were traded by collectors.

The cigarette-card craze ended around the Second World War, and these were supplanted by cards produced by manufacturers of breakfast cereals. Most prolific was the Sanitarium Health Food Company, which issued its first cards in 1941. Within 50 years it had produced well over 100 sets of cards, a number which continued to grow in the 2000s.

Free with Weet-Bix

In the decade from the mid-1950s, the Sanitarium Health Food Company issued some 18 different sets of cards with its packets of Weet-Bix cereal. The subjects included the history of flight (a set of 50 in 1956), famous ships and racing cars, as well as animals, birds and reptiles. The 1962–63 set ‘Reaching for the moon’ reflected the growing interest in space exploration.

The Timaru Milling Company, manufacturers of breakfast food Diamond O-TIS, issued cards from 1936 to the late 1960s. Cards were also provided in Gregg’s jelly crystals, from 1954 until the early 1980s.

Antiques and other collectables

Antiques were brought to New Zealand by British settlers in the 19th century. Antique collecting increased from the 1960s as more New Zealanders were able to travel to the United Kingdom by air. In 1957 the first National Antiques Fair was held in Palmerston North, and its success led to the formation of the New Zealand Antique Dealers Association.

Victorian furniture was popular, being practical and of the same period as many of the nation’s homes. Budget-conscious collectors were interested in more everyday items and bric-a-brac.


Language scholars believe ‘poozling’ is a uniquely New Zealand word which probably arose in the 1960s. A 1980 dictionary describes poozling as ‘going through abandoned houses scheduled for demolition and removing the (usually antique) fittings that strike your fancy. Until recently this was a socially acceptable practice (although not strictly legal), however, as demolition contractors catch on to the value of these fittings legal and moral pressure is exerted to discourage the practice.’1 Its origins are unclear.

From the 1960s urban renewal and the demolition of old houses provided opportunities for ‘poozling’, the scavenging of abandoned items. A wide range of collecting interests was catered for by a local magazine, The Collector (1972–83). The country’s first antique market opened in 1974, on Auckland’s Ponsonby Road, and the first club for bottle collectors was formed around then.

By the end of the 1970s there were four coin clubs in the country, while the introduction of New Zealand’s first phone cards by Telecom in 1989 provided another fertile area for collectors.

Connecting with history

A growing awareness of local history was reflected in the formation of the New Zealand Historic Places Trust in 1954, which was renamed Heritage New Zealand in 2014. Firearms were part of the nation’s history and were owned by most farmers, and by 1972 the New Zealand Antique Arms Association had some 400 members. Others collected model soldiers, 19th-century patchwork quilts and antique dolls. Historic links with Britain ensured the popularity of royal commemorative ware.

Period revivals

Another stimulus for collecting was a succession of period revivals – Victorian, art nouveau, Edwardian, art deco and the 1950s and beyond – that began in the 1960s. This was encouraged by popular publications, and in the mid-1970s by the British television series Upstairs, downstairs, which spanned the period 1903–30. The decorative arts of these periods became highly collectable, in particular those by British ceramic designers such as Clarice Cliff and Susie Cooper.

Downfall of a collector

In 1996 Wellington accountant Bruce Gall was jailed after he embezzled money from his employer to fund his well-heeled lifestyle, which included collecting New Zealand art. Gall purchased his first artwork in 1978 and amassed an impressive collection while working in the financial sector. After losing his job after the 1987 sharemarket crash, he was employed at auctioneer Dunbar Sloane. The pay cut was considerable and Gall stole from his employer to keep up appearances. His collection was sold at auction in 1996.

Art collectors

Art collections by private individuals grew during the 1960s, with one of the best-known being that of Wellingtonians Les and Milly Paris. Their first major purchase was ‘Maori boy’, by Peter McIntyre, and they went on to develop a substantial collection. Part of their collection was to be auctioned in September 2012. When private collections are sold, the items may become part of other collections.

Other notable art collectors who began collecting around the same time as the Parises included Jim and Mary Barr and Jenny Gibbs.

A new, cooperative approach to owning and enjoying art began in mid-1979 with the formation of the Prospect Collection by merchant banker Graham Reeves, art dealer Peter Webb and lawyer Warwick Brown, all of Auckland. It was based on the share group concept (where people pool their money to buy art that is owned by the group), and proved a huge success, accumulating one of the finest collections of contemporary art in New Zealand before it was sold in 1986. It also inspired some 50 other art cooperatives throughout the country.

During the 1980s art collecting was also taken up by the corporate world, with some of New Zealand’s larger law and accountancy firms developing their own collections.

    • Louis S. Leland, A personal Kiwi-Yankee dictionary. Dunedin: John McIndoe, 1980, p.127. Back

Recent collecting and collecting motivations

Nostalgic reflections

The 1990s saw the maturing of the ‘baby boomer’ generation born after the Second World War. There was a growing interest in genealogy and in New Zealand’s recent past. Old tobacco tins, for example, which might once have been used as nail containers in the back shed, were now seen as relics of a bygone era.

This period saw the emergence of ‘kiwiana’, reflecting some of the more colourful and distinctive aspects of New Zealand life. Among the more collectable items were those produced by Crown Lynn Potteries, including the classic New Zealand Railways cup and kiwi vase.

Bright spark

In 1996 Sofia Gooch of Linwood, Christchurch, had a collection of 4,500 vehicle spark-plugs. She had moved on from her previous interest in collecting teaspoons, and even wore spark-plug earrings. She told The Press that while spark plugs looked very similar to most people, in fact they were all slightly different.

From the beach and shed

New Zealand’s extensive coastline has provided rich pickings for collectors of shells, flotsam and jetsam. The country’s many sheds and farm buildings have also been boons for collectors, who have preserved discarded items, giving them a second life as collectables.

Changing sources

New Zealand collectors have trawled for material in auction houses, in antique, second-hand and opportunity shops and at white elephant stalls and jumble sales. From the 1970s garage sales and early-morning markets provided further collecting opportunities. A major change in the 2000s has been the closure of many second-hand shops and the rise in popularity of online sources, such as the website Trade Me, which in July 2012 claimed to have 2.9 million members.

Collecting motivations and psychology

Collectors collect for a range of reasons. Some have a scholarly interest in the subject of their collection. Collectors such as Robert McNab gathered manuscripts and books which formed the basis of their (and future) studies in New Zealand history. 19th-century recorders of Māori history and traditions, such as John White and Hoani Nahe, also fall into this category.

Collecting crazes

In 1894 the Otago Witness newspaper’s column on collecting commented: ‘Some new craze is always cropping up and old ones dying out. Perhaps the different collecting manias that ever and anon take possession of us are the most satisfactory, for when they are over we have at least something to show for our enthusiasm. Some of these, however, have not the slightest interest for anyone but the collectors themselves or those possessed of a like passion. China, photographs, even autographs, all appeal to our artistic tastes … but what can be more depressing than page after page of stamps?’1

Motivating factors for collectors include nostalgia, a desire to connect with past generations and understand their lives, support for and interest in contemporary artists, and simple love and appreciation of the objects collected.

Some collect for investment purposes, in the belief that the objects will increase in value. In the 1980s, for instance, demand for 19th- and early-20th-century New Zealand art increased dramatically, driven by investors who were not necessarily interested in artistic qualities.

Collectors are sometimes accused of harbouring obsessions or falling victim to crazes. Some collect a particular object, artist or writer, while others collect a range of items. The quest for collectables is often cast as a hunt – in 1936 Johannes Andersen of the Alexander Turnbull Library published The lure of New Zealand book collecting, in which he wrote of ‘sportsmen-collectors’ and ‘fever-hallucination’, and the feeling that ‘I must have this.’2

  1. Otago Witness, 16 August 1894, p. 46. Back
  2. Johannes Andersen, The lure of New Zealand book collecting. Auckland: Whitcombe and Tombs, 1936, pp. 5–7. Back

Hononga, rauemi nō waho

More suggestions and sources

How to cite this page: Richard Wolfe, 'Collecting', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, (accessed 21 July 2024)

He kōrero nā Richard Wolfe, i tāngia i te 5 o Hepetema 2013