In late January, Northcote awoke to a mysterious figure in All Nations Park, just over the road from Northcote Plaza Shopping Centre – a life-sized golden head on a plinth.

Where had the statue come from? Who made it? Who was it? What does it all mean?

“I know vague things about it,” says Sean Whelan, a local personality and expert in all-things disembodied golden head. “I’m in contact with the artist, though I think the artist is a collective. So I’m in text and Messenger contact, but I’ve never met them.”

Whelan is an active member of The Northcote Plaza Appreciation Society Facebook page, where Melburnians share memes and theories about the beloved if daggy shopping centre known for its dual Coles supermarkets and resident pigeon, Frank.

The page is where Whelan first heard about the statue one fateful summer morning, sending him diving headlong into a new obsession.

“I saw something on Facebook about this statue being discovered in the park and I thought, ‘Wow, that’s a mental story if someone has just done this pirate, guerrilla art. That’s crazy!’ So I rushed down because I live not far from there, and, sure enough, this statue had just appeared overnight,” Whelan says.

In the group, rumours swirled about the golden head’s origins, and the mythology around it grew.

“A lot of people think that I’m the artist, and it would be such a great prank if I was, but I don’t have those sort of skills,” Whelan says. “A lot of this has just happened organically, my involvement with it, it hasn’t been arranged – it’s all these happy little accidents.”

People have been spotted making pilgrimages up the hill to snap selfies with their new apolitical hero. A group of anonymous artists claimed to have created it. Stories about the head appeared in the news. Whelan made T-shirts.

“I don’t know if [the statue depicts] a real person or if it’s completely made up – that’s the beauty of it,” he says. “It’s nobody or anybody that you want.

“It’s David Bowie. It’s Lou Reed. It’s Vince Colosimo. It’s Jon Snow, Justin Timberlake. The weird thing is if you lined up photos of all these people together they look nothing alike, but when you put these photos up next to the head you’re like, ‘Oh yeah, I can see that.’”

On February 6, disaster struck. Gold Head was found knocked to the ground in an apparent act of vandalism, leading Darebin Council to remove it as a safety measure.

“That’s part of public art, unauthorised art,” Whelan says. “That’s going to happen sometimes – but it forced the council’s hand, because I think they weren’t really sure what to do about it.”

Then, something even more bizarre happened: a second golden head was found, buried not far away.

“I don’t even know for sure if the artists are responsible for the second one, because it wasn’t on a plinth, it wasn’t a bust, it was just a gold head buried,” says Whelan. “Then someone kicked its face off. Bloody kids.”

The council was even quicker to remove Gold Head II. Then, as if the statue were a multiheaded hydra (a mythical creature that regrows heads when one is cut off), another appeared in March.

Gold Head III was the biggest in the series, but its plinth wasn’t properly installed, so it too was removed by the council (it’s currently in storage).

The saga has now continued for five months, and it’s not over yet. On Friday, the original golden head made a triumphant return to the hill with a brand-new plaque, courtesy of the City of Darebin. It will remain there until July 2021, when it’ll be auctioned for charity.

“There should be a ribbon-cutting ceremony,” one fan suggested on Facebook.

“The hero we need during this time. No lungs to cough on us. No hands to touch his face. Just a good solid gold head to worship,” another commented.

To secure the sand-and-cement hero’s return, the council liaised with the artists through Whelan.

“We’re grateful for [the artists’] generosity and spirit in gifting the piece to the community,” a council spokesperson said. “The artists did provide a statement about the work ... but they requested [it] was kept confidential. They would like the statue to remain open to interpretation, and for visitors to continue to bring their own ideas and narratives to the work, as they did when it first appeared.”

One popular theory is that they’re connected to the Australian Cultural Terrorists, a collective that claimed responsibility for stealing Pablo Picasso’s The Weeping Woman from the National Gallery of Victoria in August 1986. The thieves were never identified, and the painting was later found undamaged at Spencer Street Station.

It’s rumoured the two groups share a member, but Whelan stressed that’s mere speculation – he heard the theory through a friend.

“Everywhere around the world we’re tearing down statues – and I’m actually for that,” Whelan says. “But the beauty of this is because it’s anonymous it doesn’t have a political agenda; it doesn’t have anything. It’s whatever you want to project on it and that’s the vital difference.

“I think that’s why people love it so much too. It’s that mystery. Because then you can fill in the gaps with your own imagination.”