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Photo credit: Studio Roger Asselberghs - Frédéric Dehaen

The ‘Rockefeller’ Ceremonial Maori Adze

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New Zealand 
Early Huringa I period 
Wood and nephrite 
Dimensions cm / inch
Width 38 x height 31 cmWidth 15 x height 12,2 In 
Conservation status
- Dr. Ralph Linton collection, New Haven, Connecticut
- John J. Klejman collection, New York
- Nelson A. Rockefeller collection, acquired 22 march 1956
- The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, april 1967, gift of Nelson A. Rockefeller (on permanent loan since august 1956), inv. n°56-15.
- Parke Bernet Galleries, New York, 4 mai 1967, n°57
- Collection privée, Belgium
- Collection privée, Paris
- The Museum of Primitive Art, New York, ‘Figure Sculpture from Polynesia in the Collection of the Museum of Primitive Art’, 1961, n°6 (without picture)
- Jean Guiart, The Arts of the South Pacific (French edition: ‘Océanie’) , New York, 1963, p. 361, n°374
- Parke-Bernet Galleries, ‘Primitive Art - African, Oceanic, American Indian, Pacific Northwest Coast and Pre-Columbian Art. Duplicates from the collection of Governor Nelson A. Rockefeller and the Museum of Primitive Art’, public auction catalogue, 4 may 1967, lot 57.
- BRAFA 2017 exhibition catalogue
- New York, The Museum of Primitive Art, Selected Works from the Collection: Four, 19 feb 1958 - jan 1959, n° 33
- New York, The Museum of Primitive Art, Figure Sculpture from Polynesia in the Collection of the Museum of Primitive Art, 19 july - 31 dec 1961
- El Paso, El Paso Museum of Art, One World, 12 march - 15 may 1966
The ceremonial topi poutanga adze ("the adze which establishes a man in his authority") is the most important symbol of authority for Maori chiefs, reserved exclusively for the use of the akari, the supreme leaders of the larger Maori tribes. The extremely small corpus (with often solely the sculpted shaft extant), is mostly distributed amongst institutional collections in Britain (the British Museum, the Pitt Rivers Museum, Oxford, and the National Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh), the United States (the American Museum of Natural History, New York, the University of Pennsylvania, Philadelphia) and New Zealand (Otago Museum in Dunedin and Canterbury Museum in Christchurch). Only three known pieces remain in private hands, including this one, formerly in the collection of the Museum of Primitive Art, New York.

"The nephrite blade is a treasured heirloom, and an object of mana (prestige). It is a mauri (life force) of the tribe, which has been passed down over many generations. When a holder died, the handle was taken off and buried with him. When the new paramount chief was proclaimed, another handle was made and the blade was ceremoniously lashed on. Thus a new ariki was seen to be installed." (Moko Mead, 1984, p. 184 and 222).

Within this eminent corpus, our chief's adze stands out for the virtuosity of the sculptor in translating the power traditionally vested in this emblem, and for the great beauty of the nephritis blade. Simultaneously resting on both axes of the angled shaft, the figure unfolds in the tension of the curves and counter-curves, greatly increasing the force expressed in the bulging torso, emphasized in turn by the disproportionately three long gnarled fingers that encircle it and by the forward thrusting head. The prodigious dynamics of the outline are accentuated by the wealth of tattoos covering the body, and the red-brown tones of the deep patina.
One of the finest elements within the corpus, it is especially similar (posture, blade attachment technique, broad sculpted face on the back, where the blade fits in) to an adze reproduced by Cook in 1777 in the official account of his second voyage (Cook, 1777, pl. XIX, No. 1 and 2). A probable part of the body of work acquired by Georg Forster on 4 June 1773, in Queen Charlotte Sound, it is now kept in the Pitt Rivers Museum. (Oxford University, cf. Kaeppler, 2009, p. 184). A third ceremonial adze, of a more recent make, displays stylistic similarities: now in the British Museum (inv. Royal Collection No. 69980), it was presented to the Prince of Wales by chief Pokiha Taranui, in Ohinemutu, in 1901 (British Museum, 2010, p 69). Thus it is possible to attribute the adze at hand to the style developed in the Rotorua region by the Ngati Whakaue (Arawa tribe).

Nelson A. Rockefeller (1908 Bar Harbor, Maine–1979 New York, N.Y.)
Scion of one of the nation's most significant philanthropic families, Rockefeller was elected to four consecutive terms as governor of New York (1959–73) before serving as vice president of the United States under Gerald Ford (1974–77). His political legacy was matched by his involvement in the New York art scene. He served as trustee, treasurer, president, and chairman of the board at the Museum of Modern Art; trustee at The Metropolitan Museum of Art; director of the Office of Inter-American Affairs; and assistant secretary of state for American Republic Affairs. With d'Harnoncourt and Goldwater, Rockefeller assembled one of the world's most renowned collections of African, Oceanic, and Precolumbian art, which he made public in 1957 with the opening of the Museum of Primitive Art. In 1969 he gave the collection to the Metropolitan, where it has been housed in the wing named in honor of his late son, Michael A. Rockefeller, who shared his passion for art.
C14 test
CT scan
TL test
Due diligence
Surface test
Various documents
Collection #
7800 014