If you were an Edwardian collector of exotic art you may well have your heart set on acquiring a Maori feather box, writes local historian Dr Kevin Dixon.
These boxes were made by the Maori to store the highly valued black and white tail feathers of the huia bird. They were known as waka huia and were carried back to Europe where they served as useful storage containers, such as sewing baskets.
Over the years they became greatly coveted collectors pieces and acquired a price to match their rarity.
However, unbeknown to their buyers, some feather boxes - along with many other ‘Maori and Polynesian artefacts’ - didn’t actually come from the ‘land of the long white cloud’.
They were knocked up in a Torquay back street workshop by one of history’s master art forgers.
This was James Edward Little (1876-1953).
As a young man James became a Torquay-based antiques dealer and a skilled furniture restorer. His wife let lodgings during the summer months to help with the bills, and it was due to a guest in their home that James began his long criminal career.
In 1900 a London art dealer named JB Russell stayed at the Little’s home. JB came upon some Pacific and Australasian curios and offered to sell them for his host. James then spotted a profitable business opportunity and he was soon selling Maori and Polynesian artefacts.
He would place advertisements in the Exchange and Mart newspaper and he soon had a number of serious collectors as clients. In this way, James began one of Britain’s first antiques mail order businesses.
The only problem was that many of the artefacts James had for sale were made in South Devon and not the South Pacific.
The Torquay antique dealer had used his undeniable talents to become one of Europe’s most notorious art forgers, his specialism being the forging and selling of Maori artefacts.
His fakes were so good that he convinced museum directors, scholars and Polynesian art collectors across the globe - “as a carver his work was brilliant”.
The great Pacific art collectors of the early twentieth century, WO Oldman, HG Beasley and James Edge-Partington were all taken in by James.
Even experts appreciated his skill. After the specialist Captain AWF Fuller became aware that some of his purchases were fakes, he still maintained a life-long interest in James’ work and bought examples at every opportunity. The collection is now in the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago.
He even sold fakes to experts and collectors in the home of the Maoris. You can see works by James on display at the Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth, New Zealand.
While James' forgeries were usually near-perfect copies of authentic Maori artefacts, he had other ways of making money.
One technique was to steal exhibits from museums, copy the pieces, replace them with fakes, and sell the originals on. This went on for decades.
As James conducted his transactions through the mail, none of his clients ever saw him, even though they may have been buying items from him for years. The forged or stolen artefacts were supported by forged documentation that convinced buyers that their acquisitions were genuine.
On the other hand, James made mistakes and was far from being a master criminal.
In 1915 he stole a decorated Maori wooden box from a Wiltshire museum. As usual, he swapped the original for one of his fakes. However, on this occasion, the duplicate was noticed and James was tracked down. Although he had signed the visitors’ book with a false name, he was the only visitor the museum had received in three days.
James was subsequently arrested and sent to prison for six months.
He went to prison again in 1932 and 1934 for attempted theft from museums and auction houses. In 1939 he was jailed once more for knowingly receiving stolen artefacts.
Yet, over his twenty year criminal career, James was never convicted of forgery.
James died in 1953. Sadly, there seem to be no photos of James Edward Little, and no description of him exists.
Nevertheless, James’ notoriety lives on. His forgeries occasionally surface in auctions even today.
Accordingly, the British Museum still finds it necessary to warn collectors and curators about Torquay’s master Maori art forger:
“James Edward Little: a furniture restorer who supplemented his income by dealing in authentic ethnographic artefacts and, eventually, by faking them, specialising in Polynesian, and particularly Maori, objects. He made several similar free-standing figures, one of which, bought in 1910 by a New Zealand collector, W. H. Skinner, is now in the National Museum of New Zealand in Wellington. Little's business, which he operated worldwide by mail order, flourished for nearly twenty years. His activities were first discovered in 1910 by the collector-dealer William Oldman after Little had made and sold a pair of Marquesan stilt steps.”