'Immortal Piano' set for Israel auction

A picture taken on February 18, 2020 in the Israeli coastal city of Caesarea shows a man playing the Piano of Siena

A rare piano that could fetch more than a million dollars at auction in Israel next week has a history as elaborate as the wood carvings adorning its frame.

The Piano of Siena's 221-year journey began in Turin and has included stops in Paris, a second world war battlefield in North Africa, New York and Tel Aviv. 

Moshe Porat, an Israeli piano tuner who has researched the instrument, told AFP the light brown upright decorated with carvings of wingless cherubs, animals, flora and other instruments was a "visual masterpiece".

"Soon the next chapter will begin with a new owner," Porat said, referring to the sale scheduled for Tuesday at Winner's auction house in Jerusalem. 

Turin-based harpsichord maker Sebastian Marchisio started building the instrument in 1799, according to Winner's.

Marchisio died before completing it but his descendants finished the initial build in 1825, giving it as a wedding gift to Marchisio's granddaughter Rebecca, who lived in Siena.

The unusually ornate instrument underwent several modifications before appearing at the 1867 World's Fair in Paris before being gifted to Italy's then-prince and future King Umberto I. 

The exact circumstances that saw the piano fall into Nazi hands are not clear. 

But following the 1942 battle of El Alamein, as the British were looking to see what the defeated Germans had left behind, "the piano was discovered in a crate with a mine detector," said Porat. 

"They were astonished to see a piano inside buried in the desert's sand," he said. 

The British army had no use for the piano, which had been covered in plaster.

It ended up in the hands of an Israeli merchant, who placed it outside the Tel Aviv piano workshop of Avner Carmi, whose "life was changed" when he discovered the treasure, Porat said.

Carmi removed the plaster, fixed the piano's mechanism and eventually took it to the United States, where it was displayed in New York's Steinway Hall and used for recordings in the 1950s and 1960s.  

Carmi, who co-wrote a book about the piano with his wife Hannah called "The Immortal Piano," sold it to a businessman in 1996.  

In an interview with AFP in his spacious mansion in the posh coastal town Caesarea, the current owner, who asked that his name be withheld, said parting with the piano was not easy. 

"The more I learnt about it and its history, the more attached I became to the piano," he said.

But "everything has its time," he said. 

"One needs to know how to let go of beautiful things too."