New Zealand's oldest known European relic has been formally handed over to Museum @ Te Ahu in a move which could pave the way for the return of more historic artifacts linked to the Far North.

The Surville anchor — abandoned in a storm off Tokerau Beach by the French explorer Jean-Francois-Marie de Surville in December 1769 — has been displayed at the Far North Regional Museum, and more recently at Te Ahu, since it was found in 1974.

However, it remained the property of Te Papa in Wellington and was only on loan to Kaitaia.

That changed on Saturday when officials from Te Papa travelled north to sign a Deed of Gift transferring ownership of the anchor to Museum @ Te Ahu.

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Trustee Sarah Wale said the anchor was one of three cut loose from de Surville's ship during a violent storm. All three were found by divers Kelly Tarlton and Mike Bearsley.

One went to Te Papa, one was loaned to Kaitaia and third was left behind as ''a gift to the sea''.

Wale said the anchor was almost certainly the oldest European object found in New Zealand, but was also significant because of its link to some of the earliest interactions between Māori and Europeans.

The Deed of Gift is signed by Far North Regional Museum Trust chairwoman Bronwyn Bauer-Hunt, left, and Te Papa's head of New Zealand and Pacific cultures Bronwyn Labrum. Photo / Toby Lakin
The Deed of Gift is signed by Far North Regional Museum Trust chairwoman Bronwyn Bauer-Hunt, left, and Te Papa's head of New Zealand and Pacific cultures Bronwyn Labrum. Photo / Toby Lakin

The gifting of the anchor was ''a huge honour'' and the result of 18 months of behind-the-scenes work by curator Whina Te Whiu and museum trust chairwoman Bronwyn Bauer-Hunt.

''It's not unprecedented, but it is very rare for something of this significance to be gifted to a regional museum,'' Wale said.

On a day-to-day basis it would make little difference who owned the anchor, but it was a major boost to the museum's standing and mana.

It also meant Te Papa officials, who Wale said had been impressed by the museum and the handover ceremony, would be more inclined to give objects to Museum @ Te Ahu in future.

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Te Whiu said she now planned to request artefacts from the Ventnor, which sank off Hokianga Heads in 1902, for Te Ahu's maritime collection, where she believed they belonged.

The Surville anchor weighs close to a tonne and is so large it had to be installed in Te Ahu before the last wall was built.

While there's no doubting the anchor's significance, the memories it evokes for Doubtless Bay Māori are far from happy.

Ngāti Kahu chief executive Anahera Herbert-Graves said oral history told of cordial relations when de Surville first called in to Tokerau to replenish his vessel in December 1769.

Chief Ranginui and his people traded with the French, supplied them with food and showed them where to find timber to carry out repairs.

''At one point a dinghy came loose and floated ashore so Ranginui claimed it under tikanga. Arrogantly assuming some kind of authority, they [de Surville's men] came and arrested Ranginui, ordered the destruction of his house and basically kidnapped him. He was never heard from again.''

It was only a century later that researchers studying the ship's logs learnt Ranginui had died, probably of scurvy, three months later. He was thought to have been buried at sea.

''So we have no fond memories of de Surville. The anchor is an amazing relic, we have no problem with people who want to see it and be amazed by it. But we do want to point out the deeper stories behind it and make sure they are told,'' Herbert-Graves said.

As well as Te Papa representatives and museum trustees, Saturday's handover ceremony was attended by Mayor John Carter, councillor Mate Radich and Te Hiku Community Board chairwoman Adele Gardner. Abe Witana was the MC.