A mysterious monolith that baffled officials and adventurers when it appeared and then swiftly disappeared in the remote Utah desert was removed by four men – not aliens, as many around the world might have hoped.

A group of friends who were photographing the monolith captured the removal last Friday night, then shared the images on Instagram.

As the men “walked off with the pieces, one of them said, ‘Leave no trace,’” Ross Bernards told the New York Times.

The monolith was discovered in Utah late last month, prompting origin theories ranging from fine art to leftovers from TV or film, to even aliens.

Bret Hutchings, the Utah department of public safety helicopter pilot who discovered the monolith while conducting a count of bighorn sheep, had declined to reveal its location.

“One of the biologists spotted it, and we just happened to fly directly over the top of it,” Hutchings told local media, estimating the monolith to be between 10ft and 12ft high. “He was like, ‘Whoa, whoa, whoa, turn around, turn around!’ And I was like, ‘What.’ And he’s like, ‘There’s this thing back there – we’ve got to go look at it!’”

Thrill-seekers agreed, and within days visitors found it, just east of the Canyonlands national park. Amid mounting international attention, a copycat monolith was reported in the hills of Romania.

The object’s origins remain unknown. A spokesperson for gallerist David Zwirner told the Guardian it was not a work by the late artist John McCracken. The spokesperson later told the New York Times it could be by McCracken, but confusion remains.

Nick Street, a Utah public safety spokesman, said the monolith was embedded into the rock. The Bureau of Land Management (BLM) said the monolith was “considered private property” and it would not investigate as such matters were “handled by the local sheriff’s office”.

The San Juan county sheriff declined to investigate, jokingly uploading to its website a “Most Wanted” poster with suspects replaced by aliens. But the sheriff’s office then reversed its decision and announced an investigation with the BLM.

The men Bernards’ friend photographed removing the monolith may not have been the people who installed it.

Bernards said he was visiting the monolith with a friend shortly before 9pm on Friday when he heard the men arrive.

“You better have got your pictures,” he said one of the men said, before they began pushing the monolith in an attempt to uproot it. The sculpture fell, making a loud bang, and the men broke it apart before making off with the pieces in a wheelbarrow.

Bernards suggested the men saw the monolith, which turned out to be hollow with a plywood structure, “as an eyesore, a pollutant to the landscape”.

“This is why you don’t leave trash in the desert,” one of the men reportedly said.

On Instagram, Bernards said he and a friend did not try to stop the men removing the monolith because “they were right to take it out”.

Echoing Utah authorities concerned about the environmental impact of so many visitors to such a remote location, Bernards described seeing “at least 70 different cars (and a plane)” seeking the monolith.

“Cars parking everywhere in the delicate desert landscape,” he wrote. “Nobody following a path or each other. We could literally see people trying to approach it from every direction to try and reach it, permanently altering the untouched landscape.

“Mother Nature is an artist, it’s best to leave the art in the wild to her.”

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