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VALUATION OF PIANOS

I have a car with “Ford” written on the front, what’s it worth? Why can’t you tell me? Because there are so many other things that need to be checked on a car. Has it got an engine? Is the body rusting away?

I just don't understand why anyone should ever write anywhere to ask the value of their piano: Perhaps it's all these antique shows on TV, which give the impression that an object can be given a fixed value. Maybe it's more understandable if an object is simple and decorative, but with something as complex, mechanical and WOODEN as a piano, there is so much that can go wrong, it is impossible to assess its condition purely on the basis of descriptions or photos. Most of all, the wrestpins (tuning pins) must be tested, because replacing these will often cost more than an old piano is worth.

Not only that, local variables are an issue, and what applies here in Lowestoft wouldn't apply in London, much less the USA. It has, for some years, been a useful benchmark here that if an old piano stands up without falling over, it will probably fetch £200, but not £201! Pianos are almost always mass-produced on a production line, so unless the individual instrument has exceptional artwork, or special technical or decorative features, in spite of marquetry, inlaid work, fancy fittings etc., it will have been one of hundreds or even thousands rolling off the factory line.

In that case, the age becomes an important factor: Antiques are usually defined as being over a hundred years old, but this brings us into the victorian era, and most serious collectors are up to their ears in victorian pianos, so it's the pre-victorian ones that have most rarity value. That’s why some of the big auction houses won’t even touch a piano unless it’s pre-victorian.

On the other hand, ordinary piano dealers don't want to know about anything as old as an antique, they need it to be a tuneable, functional instrument with a good tone and touch, a combination rarely found in antique pianos... So there is often this great victorian void between what a dealer wants to sell, and what a collector wants to buy.

Car salesmen have a mythical reputation for prevarication, but this pales into insignificance by comparison with some of the whoppers that I have heard of - and even overheard - from a certain minority of piano salesmen! There seems to be a need to present every secondhand instrument as if it has some unique value, whether it was supposed to have "come off the Queen Mary", or "It was specially made for an exhibition", etc. etc.. Some tuners, too, are guilty of prevarication (if not downright deceit) and seem to have a desperate need to show off their supposed knowledge by telling everyone that their piano is unique!

Junk dealers who like to think they know antiques have often never seen a real antique piano. I've watched the pound signs glow in their eyes as they are frantically looking through their antiques guides, dreaming of "The Big Find", when the truth is that the piano is not that exciting! All too often, when people contact me to ask for further information, it transpires that their instrument is nothing more than a perfectly good mass-produced production-line model. The fact that, for example, the key coverings are tropicalised, or the marquetry is well done, is not of any major importance - such arts were commonplace last century - nor does it make the piano rare or valuable, and it falls to me to let people down as lightly and politely as I can, without perpetuating the myth.

If your tuner tells you that you have a unique and valuable instrument, ask him to put his money where his mouth is! Mind you, a lot of folks are surprisingly deaf to words they don't choose to hear. The same kind of thing happens frequently when a certain book says that a certain serial number makes a piano very old, and folks are very good at choosing the number that makes their piano most interesting! The internet is even worse for repeating unverified information.

Most of the more unusual and interesting pianos I come across have little monetary value, and are only exciting from a historical or technical point of view, worthy of a place in a museum, but not valuable! Although I am endlessly fascinated by victorian pianos, they rarely fetch as much as 90 at local auctions here, unless it has been professionally restored. Any piano which is made during or after the time of Queen Victoria is unlikely to have great antique value unless it is by a famous maker, or has elaborate artwork, or is obviously unusual.



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