On a near daily basis customers ask us to value their pianos. The enquiry often goes something like this: “I’d like to know what my piano is worth; a ballpark figure will be fine. It’s an antique in perfect working condition. Given its age and design I expect it’s worth quite a bit. No one has played it for years but I’m sure all it needs is a quick tuning.”
Many people unrealistically expect their old family piano to represent a source of untapped wealth. The reality is that an old under-maintained piano, possibly with an obscure brand name, is worth very little. Owners of valuable instruments tend to have a much better sense of their pianos worth as it will typically be younger, played more frequently, and have cost more to purchase. Valuing pre-owned pianos without knowing anything about the piano itself is impossible; in contrast to motorcars, there is no concept of a book value for pianos of a certain age. A qualified piano technician needs to assess the piano to advise what a realistic value range is.
We take the following factors into consideration when assessing a piano’s value:
Acoustic pianos deteriorate over time. This deterioration is impossible to notice in “young” pianos of about twenty years or less but becomes very apparent in old pianos, for example a one hundred year old piano. The soundboard, the heart of the piano responsible for vibrating and producing its sound, very gradually loses tone production capability over time. The piano mechanisms can be entirely rebuilt which can address age related mechanical issues, but a very old piano is still not the equal of its new equivalent. This reality is important because it dictates that old pianos are not inherently more valuable the new pianos, quite the contrary.
What is true is that many older pianos have cabinets that are more ornate and detailed than the cleaner simpler lines of most of today’s new pianos. This area is a matter of personal taste, and it’s understandable that some people prefer vintage or traditional looking pianos. A classic ornate upright piano complete with candle holders may look lovely and it may be exactly what you imagine in your home, but ornate cabinets must not be mistaken for musical superiority. A new piano may look simpler, but the cabinet designs of today’s piano reflect modern taste and have nothing to do with an equally “simple” approach to the musical aspects of designing and building the piano.
People refer to the “golden age” of piano manufacture, a broad term describing pre-WWII pianos, as somehow superior to the manufacturing standards of today’s pianos and that pianos from this era are worth more than a new piano. The reality is that quality new pianos have never been more affordable as they are today, manufacturing standards have vastly improved allowing more people than ever to own a fantastic piano at an affordable price. We are living through the golden age of the piano right now!
Condition of Pre-Owned Pianos
When assessing the value of a pre-owned piano, its condition is important. Specifically, the condition of the following components:
Structural integrity refers to the cast iron frame and bridges connecting the strings to the soundboard. If there is a crack in the iron frame, the piano is effectively worthless as a resale item. Most technicians will not work on a piano with a cracked frame because the crack(s) may destabilise the tuning pins and the piano may not hold its tuning. This is not necessarily the case and your piano may remain in tune just fine, but a cracked frame has a severe impact on the piano's value if you are thinking of or attempting to sell it.
The second structural integrity item we look for is whether the bridges are delaminating and disconnecting from the soundboard.
Condition of Soundboard and Bridges
The relates somewhat to the age of the piano. Assessing the ability of an old soundboard to produce good quality sound definitely affects its value, we would technically refer to it as “residual tone production quality”. A buyer will want to know how many years of good quality sound they can expect from the piano.
Mechanical Wear and Tear
The condition of the keys, and the mechanical action that results in the hammer hitting the string when you press the keys, determines how much work will need to be done to the piano to keep it operational. It also determines how long until that work is required. The condition of the hammers themselves is also important, how hard/soft and frayed are the felts that covers the hammers?
Although it doesn’t affect sound quality, this is one area many people focus on when assessing the state, and value, of the piano. A scratched, scuffed or damaged cabinet will reduce the piano's value but it is often not worth investing heavily in cabinet repairs as a pristine cabinet is only one of a number of factors determining value. There is little point repairing a damaged cabinet on a very old piano with poor sound quality as you will be overcapitalizing on an instrument that’s unlikely to sell.
Brand matters when it comes to pre-owned pianos. A pre-owned Fazioli is more valuable than a similarly aged pre-owned Otto Bach for various reasons. High value brands are those that use the best quality materials and the highest quality production processes, often hand-crafted, in the manufacture of their pianos. The production of low value brands is heavily automated in a production line environment potentially with poor quality control using poor quality build materials. Between these two extremes are brands that fall along the spectrum differing in quality and subsequently price. This price differential is evident when purchasing a new piano, and you can often infer quality from the price bracket of a new piano, but in the pre-owned market people tend to ignore what would make the pianos differ when new, and simply price a pre-owned piano based on its age. Another entirely inaccurate method of valuing a pre-owned piano is to review the price of its new equivalent, and then price the old piano at about the same value, even though it may be fifty years old.
Have a look at this resource which lists many of the familiar piano brands, it provides a good description of the pros and cons of each - https://www.pianobuyer.com/Resources/Piano-Brands-Profiles.
Grand vs Upright
Grand pianos are more valuable than upright pianos. With a few caveats and apart from the obvious aesthetic differences, grand pianos produce better sound than upright pianos mainly based on the size of the instrument and the corresponding length of strings and soundboard. The feel of the two piano types differs in that when you press the key the mechanical action differs. Many prefer the feel of a grand piano over an upright piano.
Bigger pianos are more valuable than smaller pianos because they produce greater and richer sound. The length of the piano strings and soundboard directly relate to its sounds production. Comparing the size of your piano with other pre-owned pianos therefore helps when establishing relative value.
The market for pre-owned pianos obviously affects the value of your piano. If new pianos are unavailable, if there is a surge of interest in pre-owned pianos as art or collectors’ items, and if your brand of piano is fashionable, the value of your piano will increase. And conversely if each of these factors is reversed the value of your piano will decrease.
There are numerous pre-owned pianos up for sale at any given time so there is lots to compare against. Many of the pianos available on web listing services are of questionable value as they are well past their prime, and in their prime they may not have been very impressive in the first place. They may not have been serviced or tuned recently if it hasn't been regularly played. In this scenario it's hard to distinguish between inherently good pianos that need a service, and a piano which is unsound. Pre-owned pianos sold through reputable piano companies are a much safer bet as you’ll receive a warranty and can be secure in the knowledge that experienced technicians have inspected and serviced the piano. The resulting price will be an accurate reflection of the piano's value.
Given the factors listed above, it is not possible to give a ballpark figure without a technician fully assessing the piano in person. Our technicians are available for a fee to assess your piano, producing an accurate valuation report taking all the factors listed above into account. We understand the emotional attachment pianos generate and would welcome the opportunity to help in any way we can. Feel free to contact Ian Burgess-Simpson Pianos to book your valuation.