It has been discovered the silver aircraft opener was made by the late silversmith Jens Hansen as a gift for the then Prime Minister Bill Rowling to mark the opening of the Nelson Airport Terminal in 1975.
A savvy collector's thrift store purchase has recovered a piece of Nelson's history just two weeks after it parted ways with its original owner.
Owner of Hardy St shop Cubicle Kim Brice found the sterling silver letter opener made by Nelson jeweller Jens Hansen and gifted to then-prime minister Bill Rowling at the 1975 opening of a Nelson Airport terminal building in the Vanguard St Salvation Army store.
Brice, who briefly worked for Jens Hansen 1985, said he said he immediately recognised the jeweller's stamp on the aeroplane-shaped opener, which he purchased for $125.
Kim Brice, left, and Hafdan Hansen with the letter opener found in a Salvation Army store.
He was not aware of its history and former ownership.
"Anyone else could have got it and put it on TradeMe so I feel pretty privileged," Brice said.
He called Jens' son Hafdan Hansen who said he never saw the item at the time of its commission but recognised it from old photographs.
Jens Hansen with silver letter opener he crafted for former prime minister Bill Rowling in 1975
"I knew instantly then they said 'letter opener' and I went straight to the scrapbook."
The opener was donated to the Salvation Army two weeks ago when Lady Glen Rowling downsized to move into a Milton St retirement home.
Her son Carl Rowling said he was delighted the opener had come into Brice's hands rather than falling into "the clutches of obscurity".
Nelson Provincial Museum Collection
Former prime minister Bill Rowling, second from right, at the 1975 opening of Nelson Airport Terminal.
"There's a long connection between our two families. We went to Waimea College together and both our families used to holiday in Kaiteriteri together.
"We were always very conscious of Jens' work so I suspect that if anyone had known what it was that it wouldn't have been thrown out. Unfortunately it got caught up in that and ended up as a wonderful donation to the Salvation Army."
Hansen said the piece was commissioned at a time when his father, 15 years deceased, was "at the height of his national fame", having been awarded a Queen Elizabeth II arts grant.
"I'm always proud of my dad and it just makes me remember that back then he was at the top of his game and had a place in the Nelson community.
"He moved to New Zealand in 1952 as a 12-year-old boy from Denmark. Coming [to Nelson] he wanted to be accepted so was a vote from the community when they turned to him to make that."
The opener was difficult to value given the intrinsic value of the silver used and the intangible value of its prime-ministerial ownership, he said.
Brice will display the opener in his shop, though it won't be for sale. He is considering donating it or a replica to Te Papa at a later date.
Last updated 12:37, January 19 2016