Panels returned home in legendary fashion

Maori masterpiece the Motunui panels have been returned to New Zealand after a forty year struggle to have the prized-carvings back in their rightful place.

Motunui panel safely back in New Zealand. Source: 1 NEWS

Thought to have been carved in Taranaki 300 years ago, the house panels originally lined the walls of the Pataka store.

Arts and Culture Minister Chris Finlayson has described the panels as unique.

"There is nothing else like it. The circumstances of their leaving New Zealand, the agony for certain people that these priceless gems were out of the country".

In 1972 the panels were unearthed on a farm near Waitara after they became hidden in a swamp during the land wars of the 19th century.

Not long after their discovery, the panels were illegally smuggled out of the country without the government's knowledge and sold to a private collector using false documents.

Senior Te Papa Curator, Rhonda Paku, said the panels are in surprising condition considering their journey.

"There are very few that have survived the eons of time since the wars," she said.

The government found the panels in 1978 when details of an auction were published naming a collector, George Ortiz, selling them in need of money to pay a ransom for his kidnapped daughter.

Finlayson said the New Zealand Attorney General commenced a proceeding in the English courts.

"One went as far as the House of Lords to try in the early 1980s to try and get these back and failed on legal and technical terms."

Successive governments continued the international legal battle but failed to recover the prized panels.

Last year, when Ortiz died, his family approached the governement and indicated their wish to see the panels returned to New Zealand.

The government paid four-and-a-half million dollars for them in addition to hefty legal bills.

Taranaki Master Carver, Rangi Kipa is thrilled at their return.

"They are by far our most exceptional examples of Taranaki Whakairo".

The panels are being held in Te Papa before eventually going back to Taranaki as part of a Treaty settlement.