On Thursday, the Motunui panels will be displayed for the first time at Puke Ariki Museum in New Plymouth, finally back with the people of Taranaki where they belong.

The occasion will mark the end of a 40-year legal fight to have them returned to this country after the panels, or epa, were illegally exported in 1973.

The previous year, the taonga - estimated to have been carved before 1820 - were discovered in a swamp near Motunui. It's thought the panels would have once lined a pataka (storehouse) and were hidden in the swamp so as not to end up in the hands of enemy tribes.

The man who found them is identified in court documents only as "Manukonga". He sold the carvings for NZ$6000 to English dealer Lance Entwhistle who, according to the New Zealand Government, took them out of the country unlawfully.

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The panels, along with false ownership documents, were sold once more - for more than 10 times the original amount - to European antiquities collector George Ortiz and became part of his private collection alongside artefacts from Sumer in southern Mesopotamia, Greece and across the ancient world.

It's likely this country would not have even known of their existence had not Ortiz's 5-year-old daughter Graziella been kidnapped in 1977. In order to raise the ransom money, he put part of his collection up for auction in London.

The Motunui epa were valued at 300,000 by Sotheby's before the New Zealand Government became aware of the intended sale and began legal action. Between 1978 and 2007, this country undertook no fewer than six unsuccessful attempts to retrieve the taonga through the British legal system.

The panels have only been returned now because it was the dying wish of George Ortiz that they be repatriated.

The Government paid his family $4.5 million, along with court costs under the terms of the deal, an amount more than 750 times the original sale price.

The case did help lead to the development of international law on the illegal trade in cultural objects. But because these treaties were not in force in New Zealand or Britain when the panels and many other cultural artefacts were removed, even after this large investment of time and money the recent homecoming "was not without legal risk", according to Attorney-General Chris Finlayson who spoke at a recent symposium on art crime in Wellington.

The organisers of the conference - the Art Crime Research Trust - brought together lawyers, curators and the police in a sign that there are a growing number of New Zealanders taking present-day fraud, vandalism and theft in this area seriously.

Out of the symposium came a number of suggestions that would address the lack of knowledge on criminal activity in the sector.

One very simple step would see an art loss register set up where all stolen or missing works would be recorded.

Another is the adoption of a British scheme called Art Beat where a team of curators and experts would provide timely advice to police in cases of art crime.