Who were the prominent collectors of Toi moko 

William Oldman 

Oldman was a British dealer and collector, who collected many items from Oceania, although he never went there.  After the First World War, Oldman purchased exotic collections from many small British museums at little cost, and then sold everything except the best items.  His Māori and Polynesian collections were visited by a number of New Zealand scholars, and published in annotated catalogues by the Polynesian Society.  The collection miraculously survived the bombing of London during World War II, and in 1948 (a year before his death), Oldman sold his collection to the New Zealand government.   

Nine of the Toi moko currently under Te Papa’s care were originally part of Oldman’s collection.

W.O. Oldman with carving

W.O. Oldman with carving

Kenneth Athol Webster 

Webster was a New Zealander living in London and working in military service during the early to mid twentieth century.  He purchased artefacts from throughout the Pacific from a wide range of sources including private individuals, museums, societies, junk shops and antique shops.  As well as collecting for himself, Webster also collected on behalf of the New Zealand government.  He may have sold some of the items that were given to him by institutions as gifts for the New Zealand government, substituting them with others while retaining the provenance details of the original items. 

Webster had a collection of artefacts which included Toi moko.  These were loaned to the Dominion Museum in 1948, and over a subsequent ten year period monetary instalments were made to Webster, so that in 1967 when the Museum paid Webster’s death duties the Toi moko became its property.

Seven of the Toi moko currently under Te Papa’s care have some level of association with Webster. 

Antique shop sign in Tring, Hertfordshire, Mark Fosh, 2007. Licensed by Creative Commons

 Antique shop sign in Tring, Hertfordshire, Mark Fosh, 2007. Licensed by Creative Commons

Major-General Robley

Horatio Gordon (Te Ropere) Robley was stationed with the 68th Regiment in Tauranga for almost two years during the Land Wars (1864-1866), and as a ‘competent artist’ he greatly admired Māori arts and crafts.  He produced extensive sketches and drawings of moko and kowhaiwhai (scroll) patterns, and amassed the largest collection of Toi moko, which he termed mokomokai.  Robley’s fascination was particularly with the design (rather than the meaning) of moko, which he believed was a dying art that needed to be preserved.  While in New Zealand, Robley married Harete Mauao of Ngāti Tapu, and they had one son with whom he kept in touch after his return to the United Kingdom. 

Robley wrote Moko; or Maori Tattooing which was published in 1896, based on his own collection of Toi moko and drawings.  In 1897 Robley’s collection of Toi moko was placed on public exhibition in London’s Guildhall for twelve months.  The following year it was transferred to public exhibition at the Liverpool Museum, until June 1899.  Some time during 1899, Robley offered the collection which then numbered 21 Toi moko to the New Zealand government.

In 1908 Robley sold 35 of the Toi moko from his collection to the American Museum of Natural History in New York.  Five remaining Toi moko were repeatedly offered to New Zealand, but ultimately sold to overseas purchasers. 

One of the Toi moko currently under Te Papa’s care was originally part of Robley’s collection.

 Major General H.G. Robley

Major General H.G. Robley, unknown photographer circa 1860


Te Awekotuku, Ngahuia. “He Maimai Aroha: A Disgusting Traffic for Collectors: The Colonial Trade in Preserved Human Heads in Aotearoa, New Zealand”, in A Kiendl ed. Obsession, Compulsion, Collection: On Objects, Display Culture and Interpretation, Alberta: The Banff Centre Press, 2004.

Walker, Timothy. Robley: Te Ropere, 1840-1930, MA Thesis University of Auckland, 1985