Rare Maori cloak pulled from auction after online threats and abuse

An auction house in Sussex that has been forced to withdraw a Maori shawl that it had listed for sale after receiving abuse and threats about it online

A small British auction house has withdrawn from sale a rare Maori cloak which apparently once belonged to a tribal chief, after receiving online intimidation and insults.

Burstow & Hewett, in the Sussex town of Battle, were subject to "the worst kind of threats," which they eventually reported to the police, according to managing partner Mark Ellin.

The firm and their clients who own the cloak -- traditionally referred to as a kakahu -- were subjected to a "barrage" of angry responses after a piece about the historic artifact aired on New Zealand TV last month.

Steve and Mary Squires discovered the garment -- made from hand-woven flax and cotton with a dyed geometric border -- at the back of a cupboard last year, where it had stayed folded for "at least 100 years," according to Mary. As such, its bright colors are almost as good as new.

What made it even more special was an attached handwritten note, which read: "Maori mat worn by the Chief Rewi when peace was declared between Maoris and Europeans after the Battle of Orakau," according to a press release from Burstow & Hewett.

The couple described how they researched the family history and stumbled across a Thomas Grice, who was recorded as spending time with Chief Rewi in the years after the Maori wars, between 1845 and 1872.

Meanwhile, photographs of the chief from around 1879 depict him wearing a very similar cloak, according to the release. Amazed by the story, the auctioneers welcomed the TV crew to their premises.

In the TV clip, the couple expressed a desire to see the cloak return to New Zealand. "We would love it to go back to New Zealand, but not necessarily as a gift," said Steve.

This was not unreasonable, Ellin told CNN: "They traced their family back and found that one of their ancestors traveled around with the chief -- they are the rightful owners. It has been in their family since it was given to them by the chief -- there's no question that it was ever stolen."

What seemed like a good opportunity for some publicity completely backfired, according to Ellin.

"We were bombarded as soon as it was on TV. We were absolutely barraged with emails and Facebook abuse and trolling... Threats against us and the couple, saying 'we know where they live' and threatening to burn our business down."

One piece of correspondence even referenced the Mongrel Mob, a notorious criminal gang in New Zealand. Ellin described the messages as "the sort of thing you would be frightened to read if it was about you."

Sussex Police said in a statement to CNN: "A report of this incident has been recorded and the circumstances have been assessed. Safety advice has been given to the recipient."

The cloak garnered much attention from interested parties, including Maori cultural groups and museums in New Zealand. But at the end of August, Ellin and his colleagues canceled the auction, which had been scheduled for September 18.

"That (the abuse) was enough for us to say we don't want anything to do with this so we immediately made a decision to withdraw it," he said.

The owners have since deposited the cloak with an undisclosed bank until they decide what to do next, according to Ellin.

"It has been a learning experience and I hope never to repeat it again," he said.

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