Pounamu stone flies first class to satisfy protocol

A large pounamu stone gifted to China from the Christchurch City Council and Ngai Tahu flew first class to its new owner as it was culturally insensitive to put it in the hold.

Ngai Tahu protocol also meant the pounamu had to be accompanied on the journey by two members of the iwi, at a cost to the ratepayer of $2500.

The cost of gifting the 35kg stone was shared between the iwi, the council and Air New Zealand. Ngai Tahu gifted the pounamu, the council paid for sourcing and preparation, and the airline sponsored the flight costs for the stone.

The stone took up two seats in economy class for the first leg of the journey from Christchurch to Auckland, but was stowed in a compartment in first class for the trip from Auckland to Hong Kong.

Two Ngai Tahu members flew in economy class. The council paid for one Ngai Tahu member's return flight, while the iwi paid for the other.

Parker presented the gift to Wuhan Mayor Chengfa Ruan in China on April 22.

Ngai Tahu was unable to provide details of the cost of sourcing the stone and its value.

Pounamu experts said a stone of that type and size would fetch between $700 and $1400, as its fractures meant it was unsuitable for carving.

They said it could be worth about $5000 if it was sold as a purely ornamental stone.

A Ngai Tahu spokesman said the expert valuation was "not too far off the mark", but said bowenite greenstone was highly valued for its spiritual significance and relative scarcity.

Maori protocol prescribes that a precious gift from an iwi becomes more than an inanimate object as it is imbued with the spiritual force of the tribe and so needs to be treated accordingly. Protocol also states the gift must be handed over by people who have mana in the iwi.

The details of the diplomatic gift were revealed in an Official Information Act request by The Press. The information supplied showed the urgency, angst and logistics that went into the four-month search for a suitable pounamu stone to avoid possible diplomatic embarrassment.

Wuhan has a strategic partnership with Christchurch as both cities move to exploit the recently signed free-trade agreement with China.


The Press