A New Zealand museum director has accused the French of protecting the trade in human beings after France's Culture Minister blocked the return of a Maori warrior's mummified head at the 11th hour.
The Museum of Natural History in Rouen was supposed to hand back the toi moko on Tuesday but just before the handover ceremony, French Culture Minister Christine Albanel suspended the return, branding it a breach of administrative process and laws on national heritage.
"The collection of the Rouen museum, like all public museums, is protected by specific laws designed to prevent the breakup of the national heritage," Ms Albanel said.
She ordered the prefect, the state's local representative, to file suit at the Rouen administrative court to stop the proceedings. The hearings will start today.
In an embarrassing local versus central government fight the city's mayor has campaigned for the head to be returned to Te Papa repatriation programme.
Auckland Museum's director, Maori, Dr Paul Tapsell, said toi or uru moko had nothing to do with France's national heritage.
"Basically, we're talking about the protection of the trade in human beings.
"I would think there's a real ethical and moral agreement that it is wrong."
Toi moko were not "mere objects" and many had never had burial rites because they had ended up in foreign collections, he said.
"These were living people, they're part of living memory, our grandparents remember their grandparents speaking of these terrible things that occurred."
Tattooed, shrunken heads sparked a brisk, grotesque trade among European collectors until it was outlawed by the British in 1831. Some of the estimated 200 held around the world were stolen from burial caves.
New Zealand launched a campaign to recover the heads from museums and private collections around the world in 1992, responding to Maori grievances at the treatment of the remains.
Dr Tapsell said that before the introduction of the musket moko was only worn by those who had killed in hand-to-hand combat.
The moko represented the warrior's lineage but also was a testament to the vanquished person's whakapapa.
"It [the moko] wasn't worn lightly, it had great mana. There was also the pain of the whakapapa of those lives you'd taken."
Once a warrior with a moko was killed in combat his head was removed by his enemy.
"The mana of that person was taken when the head was taken."
At some point the preserved head could be offered back to the kin group, as utu - a rebalancing - for peace, Dr Tapsell said.By Yvonne Tahana Email Yvonne, Catherine Field Email Catherine