Pania of the Reef is gone and the people of Napier want her back.

The bronze statue, which has graced Napier's Marine Parade for more than 50 years, was jemmied off her prime spot overlooking the sea during the night.

"The Pania statue is in every tourist guide about Napier and books on Hawkes Bay," said Detective John McGregor. "People from all around the world come to look at it and it's not there. It's a calamity."

The life-size, hollow statue, which was cast in Italy and modelled on a young Maori girl, was estimated to weigh between 60kg and 100kg and was last seen about 10 o'clock on Wednesday night by a woman out walking her dog.

Council staff noticed Pania was missing about 9.30am yesterday.

Mr McGregor said the thief or thieves had used a bar to break the bolts attaching her to her lookout point. It appeared the statue had then been dragged to a nearby car.

Police were following leads and forensic evidence had been taken from the scene.

Mr McGregor said it was possibly a copycat offence - recently a Paul Dibble sculpture was stolen from a private home on the Kapiti Coast and a ransom paid.

Police were called in after the sculpture was returned.

"The other possibility is it's just pranksters who saw the well-known statue, an icon of Napier, and thought, 'We would like that - we'll put it in our living room'."

Napier City Council reserves manager Tony Billing said the theft had upset residents, visitors and local iwi, who had gathered to pray for the statue's return.

"There were people who had heard on the radio who came down to see if it was true," he said. "People were gutted."

Mr Billing said the statue, which had been on the waterfront since 1954, was an icon for Napier like the city's art deco buildings.

"When I went down there there was this big gap," he said. "You don't have this beautiful big statue looking down on you."

May Robin, who posed as the model for the statue while at Hukarere School in Napier over half a century ago, said she was devastated by the theft.

"I'm still in shock that someone could stoop so low to do such a tragic thing," she said.

Mrs Robin said she remembered a group of people coming to the school in 1951 when she was a third former and looking for a suitable person to model for Pania, "the beautiful wahine".

She lined up with other older girls and was chosen for the photo session.

Aaron Hing, head of marketing for Hawke's Bay Incorporated, said the tourism body was saddened by the theft of one of the region's icons.

"She was one of the most photographed images we have locally.

"It's a shame, the mindlessness of some people."

Pania was gifted to the city by a group called the 30,000 Club.

The legend of Pania

Pania, a beautiful maiden of the sea people, lived with her husband Karitoki in a whare near the foot of the Napier breakwater. The sea people were forever calling her. She resisted but one day swam out to meet them, just once. The sea people surrounded her and drew her down into the depths of the sea, never to return to the land of mortals.