Rick’s Café upright piano from Casablanca sold for $3.4 million in 2014. John Lennon’s “Imagine” piano sold for $1.67 million in 2000. But your piano is worth less than you think.
Thus, C.J. writes me asking how to set a value on her piano. I offer C.J. some clues to piano valuations: older pianos are not necessarily the most valuable, and Steinways are not always the high-ticket pianos. Pianos and makers had good and bad years. First step in finding value is to ascertain the maker and age; cross reference using an online source (Piano Blue Book) for an estimated date/make = value. Find the piano’s serial number, which is usually stenciled on the iron bridge or plate on Grands, and for uprights, look for the number inside the lid stamped on the back of the piano.
Now, is a Grand worth more than an upright? Generally, yes, because ubiquitous uprights dominated the middleclass market from the 1890’s to the 1960’s. Throughout the evolution of upright pianos, gaudy late 19th C. designs gave way to simplistic utilitarian designs, like the “Acrosonic” I learned on.
What about baby grands? This style was popular: called “apartment grands” from the 1920’s to 40’s, sometimes only 52 inches long, the sound quality suffered. The “Spinet” upright piano, designed after the Great Depression (sometimes only 36 inches high), and the Console upright piano (a little taller) dominated the American later mid-century market, are not considered valuable today.
Manufacturers matter, too, in value, and the decal name over the keys may be the distributor and not the maker, so look for the maker’s name inside the piano. A hint: patent dates do not mean anything and do not establish the piano’s date of manufacture; many clients wrongly believe the patent date is the piano’s age.
If your piano is older, and has never been professionally restored, it is unlikely it will sell well, as expertly restored pianos always sell for more (just as a well-restored car will). Restoration does not mean your mom’s refinishing job. Restoration means expert professional care for the internal mechanisms, bringing an instrument to factory-new condition.
My clients are always shocked when I tell them their parent’s Grand piano is worth $1000 in poor condition to $3500 in average functional condition. And a spinet, upright, or console can be worth as little as $100-300 in functional but “unrestored” condition. A Grand piano of a good make in average functional condition is sometimes an albatross: it may only sell after weeks of marketing for $1500-5000, and then someone has to pay $800-1000 to have it moved. Yikes!
If you decide to have a Grand piano professionally restored (not just refurbished, which in many experts opinions is a halfway gesture of little value), you can spend $10,000+. If you have a good year of a Beckstein, a Bosendorfer, or a Steinway, and restore it, it may be worth twice the cost of restoration, or more, after you’re done.
Steinways do hold their value more so than other brands. Steinway has had a marketing strategy: great concert pianists are made “Steinway Artists,” the greatest Steinways are handpicked for their concerts. Steinway has “All Steinway” Schools and Academies, where no other brand is allowed: Julliard, Oberlin and Yale are “All Steinway” Schools.
Certified appraiser for estates, inheritances and trusts.
Dr. Elizabeth Stewart's column appears every week in the Salon & Style section of the Santa Barbara News Press. Email her your questions and high-resolution photos at ElizabethAppraisals @ gmail.com
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