Waitara pataka panels illegally sold overseas more than 40 years ago are on their way home to Taranaki.
The Government has paid $4.5 million for the panels, which are now at Te Papa, from late Bolivian art dealer George Ortiz's family.
Waitara master carver Rangi Kipa said getting the panels back was significant for the cultural heritage of Taranaki.
"They were illegally and inappropriately taken out of the district."
The five panels, the tallest of which is about 1.5 metres, are the best examples in existence, he said.
Kipa said the 300-year-old panels would have been buried during intertribal warfare with Waikato.
The way they looked after ancestral taonga of the tribe was to bury them, but many Te Atiawa went south to Wellington and never returned, he said.
The Government is looking at gifting the panels back to the iwi.
The five panels are highly elaborate carvings and would have formed part of the back wall of a pataka (storehouse), Kipa said.
"The pataka had the most elaborate carvings because it housed food, which was the collective wealth of the whole group."
The panels were dug up in farmland in Motonui in 1972 and were sold for about $6000 in 1973 to English art dealer Lance Entwistle, who then smuggled them out of New Zealand and sold them to Bolivian millionaire George Ortiz for US$65,000.
Ortiz then tried to sell the panels at London auction house Sotheby's to pay off a $NZ3m ransom for his 5-year-old daughter, which brought it to public attention.
The New Zealand Government put an injunction on the Sotheby's sale but failed in attempts to recover them when the Privy Council ruled against its case.
- Taranaki Daily News
Did the Key v Cunliffe debate change your vote?Related story: Support slips for National and John Key