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A town's golden weathervane mysteriously vanished in 1999. The thief was just identified after he used his credit card to mail it back.

A rueful thief has returned a golden ornamental cockerel stolen in a French village, a prosecutor said on Tuesday, lifting the veil on its mysterious disappearance nearly 25 years ago.

The iron-wrought painted cockerel was taken in April 1999 from the top of an outdoor Catholic cross in Bessan, a village of 5,500 inhabitants located between Beziers and Agde in southwestern France.

Locals were kept guessing as to its whereabouts until the metal bird was sent in a parcel to a historian, Michel Sabatery.

He had kept the mystery in the public eye by writing about it in newspapers and on social media.

When he received the statue in November, Sabatery informed the mayor's office, which in turn alerted the prosecutor of Beziers, Raphael Balland.

Police quickly identified the thief, mostly because he had paid for the parcel postage with his own credit card, Bessan mayor Stephane Pepin-Bonet, told AFP.

When he was confronted by police, the thief confessed, Balland said, telling them he had taken the cockerel -- a weathervane -- on the night of a drunken party.

Once he had sobered up, he felt too ashamed to give it back and hid it in his basement, the prosecutor said.

Nearly a quarter of a century later, the man, now in his late 40s, re-discovered the cockerel in the cellar and decided it was time to return it.

The weathervane will be put back on the iron mission cross in a forthcoming ceremony, Pepin-Bonet said, but this time "really well attached so it can't fly away again".

The mayor seemed ready to forgive what he said was "possibly a youthful indiscretion" but said he would remind people at the ceremony that ornaments like the cockerel were part of the village's heritage, which "maybe doesn't have great value but belongs to everybody".

The prosecutor declined to divulge the identity of the thief, who has nothing to fear from the law because France's statute of limitations -- six years for petty theft -- makes him immune from prosecution.

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