03/20/2012 10:41 EDT | Updated 05/20/2012 05:12 EDT

Rare native artifact returned to B.C.

A centuries old artifact believed to have been given to British explorer James Cook by a B.C. First Nation more than 230 years ago is now back home.

The one-of-a-kind carving in the shape of a hand holding a sphere has been donated to the University of B.C.'s Museum of Anthropology by Vancouver art collector Michael Audain.

"I must confess I had little sleep last night because this is one of the most exciting days of my life," Audain said at the donation ceremony Tuesday.

Now valued at $1.2 million, the carving is believed to have been given to Cook by natives from Vancouver Island’s Nootka Sound during his voyage to western North America between 1776 and 1779.

Cook was the first European to set foot on what is now Canada's West Coast.

The carving was held in private collections around the world until art dealer Donald Ellis tracked it down for Audain in the U.S.

"I have always been aware of the fact that there is not a Cook object in Canada," said Ellis. "Returning this to Canada was pretty important to me."

Carved out of wood from a yew tree, it was assumed to be a weapon, but the museum is investigating to try to determine just how the artifact might have been used.

"We think it was used as a club, but also, given the intricate form of the fineness of the carving, it would also have been a status symbol of the person who used it," said museum director Anthony Shelton.

The object is already on display.

"I'm so delighted it's going to be looked after here for as long as the sun comes up each morning," Audain said.