It's hard to decide what's more loopy about the current great piano arrest scandal. On the one side is the Department of Conservation (DOC) which has detained a geriatric, ivory-keyed, upright piano from the household luggage of a British immigrant, for not having the right paperwork.

In the aggrieved corner is esteemed heart expert, Professor Julian Paton, who for some unfathomable reason, went to the trouble, and presumably cost, of dragging something as bulky and little value as an ancient upright piano halfway around the world – something he could have picked up off Trade Me for the price of a quick rendition of Chopsticks once he'd got here.

DOC polices our commitments under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (Cites), which, among other things, tries to save elephants by banning the trade in ivory.

Illustration / Peter Bromhead
Illustration / Peter Bromhead

Old pianos with their ivory keys, can be exempted if you have the right paperwork. Professor Paton didn't, because, he says, of a slip up by his removal company.

Now in a sane world, this should have been sorted rather quickly. After all, the elephant which provided ivory for this particular keyboard, expired while Queen Victoria still ruled the Empire.

And it's not as though the professor was planning to rip the keys off once he got it back to his Mt Eden garage and cut them up into ivory toothpicks or whatever DOC suspects is the endgame for old piano keys.

But rules are rules, and even with the professor pulling rank and engaging in a conference call with his local MP, David Seymour and DOC director-general Lou Sanson, the piano remained doomed.

Last Thursday a piano tuner was retained to surgically remove the 50 ivory key tops which were then taken away for burial.

Paton says if he doesn't reimburse DOC for its costs, it will scrap the rest of the mutilated piano as well.

Coinciding with reports that deadly Kauri dieback disease had now spread to Kauri Park on Auckland's North Shore, it's hard not to think DOC would be better occupied trying to save the unique elephants of our own landscape.

That said, if I were Paton, I'd enjoy the headlines I'd stirred up – he's now starring in everything from the Guardian to the Borneo Bulletin – then head for Trade Me. Which is what he should have really done in the first place.


There he will find the country is awash with old "Joannas" of similar vintage, for next to nothing, crying out for a new home. All he'll need is a mate with a ute and a few well-muscled medical students as willing labourers, to get it home.

Like the professor, I bought an "heirloom" upright about 30 years ago. Mine's a John Broadwood and Sons "by appointment to British Sovereigns from George II to Edward VII – Grand Prix Paris 1900".

It's been gathering dust and dropping in value ever since.

I kept meaning to get back into my piano playing, but playing records proved easier. So It became a book shelf instead.

These days I suspect I'd have to pay someone to take it away. I fear, to the tip. Still, the latest theory is that piano playing in your dotage is a good way to ward off Alzheimers, so maybe it's time to get back on that stool.

As for the professor's instrument, he says it will cost him "several hundred dollars" to fit replacement synthetic tops on the keys.

Plus DOC's costs. Why would you bother?

Trade Me has nothing going in his brand, Jarrett & Goudge of Hackney, London. But for $100 "buy now" he could pick up a John Spencer and Co, from London, complete with gold imperial crest claiming "By Special Appointment to HRH Prince of Wales" plus gold medals in Edinborough 1890, Melbourne 1900. It comes from "a clean and smoke free house".

For $150, there's a "Lovely old Ronisch Piano" from Germany, or "an antique upright piano" from Berry in London, with stool thrown in.

There's similar vintage "heirlooms" from assorted German, English and American companies.

Indeed for a mere $100, no reserve, he could pick up a Morley Baby Grand "in good condition". Though there would be shipping costs from Christchurch.