More valuable than gold: New Zealand feather becomes most expensive in the world

A rare and highly prized feather from the extinct New Zealand huia bird has sold for NZD$46,521 (US$28,365), making it by far the world’s most expensive feather ever sold at auction.

The hammer price far exceeded initial estimates of between $2,000-$3,000, and blew the previous record-holder’s price out of the water. Until Monday’s sale, the previous record sale was another huia feather that sold in 2010 for $8,400.

The feather weighs roughly 9 grams, making it vastly more valuable than gold – $5,169 per gram compared with $127 per gram of gold, according to the latest Gold Broker figures.

The huia was the largest of New Zealand’s wattlebird species, known for its beautiful song, its predominantly black glossy feathers and long tail feathers tipped with white. The last confirmed sighting of a huia was in 1907, though it is believed they were still alive into the 1920s.

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The bird was sacred to Māori, and featured in songs and sayings, while the wearing of its feathers was reserved for rangatira (chiefs) and people with mana (prestige). When Europeans arrived in New Zealand the birds were already rare, but a subsequent European craze for their feathers led to their demise.

The desire to own something of the huia remains strong internationally. In 2023, a pair of stuffed huia sold at a British auction for NZD$466,000, despite public pleas for the New Zealand government to intervene and bring them home.

Leah Morris, the head of decorative arts at Auckland-based Webb’s auction house where the feather was sold on Monday, believed the single feather’s excellent condition, the efforts to protect the feather with archival paper and UV glass, and the story of the huia, drove up the bids.

“The huia is such an iconic bird and a lot of people really relate to the bird in some way,” she told the Guardian.

The specimen was one of the best huia feathers the house had seen come to market.

“It doesn’t have a lot of bunching in the feathers … you’ll also see it’s retained a lot of its colours … its rich brown and iridescent colour and there is no sign of damage from insects,” Morris said.

The feather is registered as a taonga tūturu (authentic treasure) with the Ministry for Culture and Heritage, meaning only a registered “taonga tūturu” collector can buy the feather, and the feather cannot leave New Zealand without permission.

There are few details over the provenance of the feather and Morris could not divulge information about the vendor or buyer due to confidentiality agreements. But she said they were both registered collectors and New Zealand-based. There were no international bids.

About 30 people were present at the auction, however all the bids were made via phone or online. Morris said people watched the price go up “with bated breath”.

“When the bidding eventually stopped and the hammer was knocked down there was a round of applause in the room – you don’t often get that at an auction.”