After a wait of 200 years, 20 tattooed Maori ancestral heads have returned home to emotional scenes.
Maori and French cultures combined to return the toi moko to Te Papa from European museums.
The 20 preserved warrior heads were due to arrive in Wellington from France yesterday, but gale force winds delayed their arrival in the capital and they spent the night in Auckland.
The toi moko have elaborate tattoos and were collected and traded by European explorers. They were traditionally kept as trophies after tribal wars and were later traded for moderns weapons and European goods.
French Culture Minister Frederic Mitterrand presided over a handover ceremony this week at the Quai Branly museum in Paris where a team from Te Papa accepted the artefacts.
They were brought into the marae at Te Papa in wooden boxes. Members of the iwi in residence, Tainui, performed karanga and haka.
ONE News reporter Lucas De Jong described the powhiri as "beautiful and moving" and said the heads will now be moved to the museum's sacred meeting house.
None of the toi moko will go on display to the public. The repatriation team at Te Papa will begin to trace the origin of each moko and then return them to their whanau, a process they say could take up to 10 years.
"We have to investigate Maori history and link the battles with the times the tupuna (ancestors) left to go overseas," repatriation manager Te Herekiekie Herewini said.
The New Zealand Embassy said it was the single largest group of Maori heads to be repatriated, and brings an end to a long struggle by Maori to bring home their dead and lay them to rest.
Around 320 toi moko have been returned to New Zealand from various countries since the 1980s. But there are still around 500 of the tattoored heads in public and private collections overseas.
France long resisted handing over such cultural artefacts but a law passed in 2010 eventually paved the way for the return of the heads.
French ambassador Francis Etienne said the handover closes a gruesome chapter.