Motunui panels returned to Taranaki

Stuff.co.nz

Taranaki Maori rejoice at the return of the Motunui Epa panels.

Carved Maori panels were hidden from enemies, illegally sold overseas and put up for sale for ransom money before being returned to Taranaki in the "most significant repatriation of taonga this country ever seen."

After an intriguing 40 years abroad the Motunui panels are back where they belong.

The five carved epa, pataka panels, were returned to Taranaki at dawn on Friday, by the Minister for Treaty of Waitangi Negotiation Chris Finlayson, at a formal powhiri and ceremony at Owae Marae in Waitara.

In the afternoon the panels were presented to Puke Ariki Museum for care and safekeeping. The epa were deposited with Puke Ariki under trust guardianship arrangements between Te Atiawa, Ngati Rahiri, Puke Ariki and the Crown. 

The epa, highly elaborate carvings that would have formed part of the back wall of a pataka (storehouse), are thought to have been carved between 1750 and 1820 and during inter tribal warfare, buried in a swamp near Motunui for safekeeping. 

They were discovered in 1972 and illegally sold to a collector, George Ortiz, who lived in Switzerland, and taken out of the country.

The Government paid $4.5 million for the panels last year.

Te Atiawa chairwoman Liana Poutu said seeing the panels returned was a "pretty emotional experience."

"It's been a long journey for them to return home." 

The panels were important, not just for Te Atiawa, but for Taranaki as a region. 

"It is unique to have a full wall of panels. Usually just find one or two."

And because of the age of the panels, carvers will be able to get a better understanding of traditional carving styles, she said. 

Prime Minister John Key said the panels were of great cultural significance to Taranaki iwi and great national and international significance to the art world. 

They will be on display in Taranaki where they belong, so all New Zealanders can enjoy the masterpieces, he said. 

Finlayson said the story of the panels is fascinating and has had ramifications in New Zealand and throughout the world. 

Ortiz put the panels up for sale in 1978 to raise money for a ransom when his daughter was kidnapped.

Former Taranaki Museum director Ron Lambert spotted the sale and alerted the government, Finlayson said.

The government of the day started legal action to stop the sale and it went all the way through the English courts to the House of Lords. But the case was lost, he said. The daughter was rescued and Ortiz kept the panels.

While the decision went against New Zealand, it played an important role in setting up an international convention of retrieving works of culture, which has been signed by 127 countries.

"We should be proud as a country for our contribution to the convention." 

Over the years there have been many attempts by different government to get the panels back, he said.

Ortiz died in 2013 and told his family he wanted the panels to come back to New Zealand. 

The government came to an agreement with the family last year.

Puke Ariki  Tumuaki/Director Kelvin Day said he felt honoured to be part of the "most significant repatriation of taonga this country ever seen".

"Their OE is over."

He never gave up hope the panels would come home, he said.

 - Taranaki Daily News

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