BUENOS AIRES, Argentina – The huge stone head is framed by a wooden crate that casts shadows across its vacant eyes and elongated nose. After an odyssey of more than 80 years, the sculpture is set for what should be its final journey — home to Easter Island.
The 7-foot Moai, carved from compressed volcanic ash and decked in a red-rock headdress called a Pukau, is one of almost 900 ancestral statues crafted centuries ago on the remote Pacific island, annexed by Chile in 1888.
It was taken from the island in 1929 and spent some 40 years in the Chilean capital of Santiago before traveling to Argentina and making a quick round-trip visit to the Netherlands.
"Today is the end of a long exile for this Moai," Chilean Ambassador Luis Maira said at a ceremony Tuesday in Buenos Aires. "Today it is being returned to the place where it belongs, where the people are affectionately waiting for it."
Chilean artist Rosa Velasco, the statue's current owner, said that by returning the Moai she hopes to help preserve part of the cultural heritage of the Rapanui islanders, the natives of Easter Island.
"This is a very important moment for me. I am happy that I can return this piece, repatriate it to Easter Island," said Velasco, who put the statue on public display Tuesday and Wednesday at a Buenos Aires cultural center. "I think that it is my ethical duty to return this statue."
It is one of a dozen statues known to reside outside of Easter Island, including two at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History in Washington, two at London's British Museum and two in the National Museum of Natural History in Santiago.
Next week the statue is to be trucked from Buenos Aires to the Chilean port of Valparaiso and loaded aboard a Chilean navy ship for the journey to the island, 2,250 miles off the coast.
The Moai was taken from the island's capital of Hanga Roa in 1929 when it was given to Chilean President Carlos Ibanez del Campo.
It remained in Santiago until 1970, when it was bought by Velasco's father and transported to Buenos Aires.
She said the statue was then sold to an art collector, who took it to the Netherlands. But the statue was returned to Buenos Aires after eight months when the collector's payment did not clear.
Velasco said the Moai then spent years in Argentine customs while the dispute was settled before ending up in her possession.
A group of Easter Island elders worked with Velasco and Maira to arrange the repatriation.
The Moais, crafted between 400 and 1,000 years ago, represent deceased sacred ancestors of the Rapanui, who were believed to have descended from gods. While some are up to more than 70 feet tall, most average 20 feet and weigh some 20 tons.
Although the Rapanui people no longer worship the statues, the Moais are a symbol of their culture and history, said University of Hawaii Archaeologist Terry Hunt.
"The Rapanui people have the right to have that culture back," Hunt, the director of the university's field study program on Easter Island, said by telephone.
To date, as many as 880 Moai statues have been counted on the island, but scientists estimate there may be more than 100 others still undiscovered.
The history of the monolithic statues — with their large heads, long ears, pursed lips and compact torsos — remains a bit of a mystery.
Scientists say the island's inhabitants went on a carving spree between the 15th and 17th centuries, depleting the island of its forests as logs were used to move the massive statues into place. But there are still many gaps in the history, including when the inhabitants arrived on the island and what spurred their obsession with the Moais.
"There is a lot that is said about the island and a lot that we don't know. We have a lot to learn in doing research there," Hunt said.
As far as the value of the individual Moais, no one here was willing to place a price on the statues, other than to say that collectors would probably pay thousands of dollars for one.
To the Rapanui islanders, the return of the statues is priceless.
"I am happy to hear and to find that this history has an end. And this end completes us now," said Ema Tuki, a member of the Easter Island National Indigenous Council.