One of the questions we get the most often goes something like this:
“I just moved into a house with a piano left behind by the previous owner. Is it worth anything?”, often followed by, “Do you have any interest in buying it?”
Sure, once in a great while, someone will “luck out” and move into a house in which the previous owner conveyed a relatively valuable piano by a known and respected piano maker that is still in playable and tunable condition. That happens about as often as finding a $100 bill lying on the sidewalk. What is much more common is moving into a house in which the previous owner left behind a 100-plus-year old piano, often a big saloon-style upright like the kind you see in Hollywood Westerns that most people say “weighs a ton” (they don’t, but they feel like it when you try to move them). More often than not, the piano has changed hands numerous times, hasn’t been tuned or serviced in years, if not decades, and is teeming with mechanical problems that would cost hundreds, if not thousands of dollars to fix properly. Often the optimistic new owner believes, “It’s in perfect condition. It just needs tuning.”
Before we go into a long story about why the orphaned piano in question is probably no longer a valuable, viable musical instrument, the biggest clue is this:
The previous owner abandoned it!
Generally, people don’t abandon pianos unless they already know that the piano is worth less than the cost of moving it.
But it’s a beautiful antique, many people will argue. Perhaps it is, but let’s try to dive into some of the complex reasons why most seemingly valuable antique pianos are often considered all but worthless, at least in the piano business.
Imagine that you live in 1920, a world in which phonographs, radios, and televisions either haven’t been invented yet or are still expensive novelties only available to wealthier members of society. If you are a person or family of average means who wants music in your home, then you need to buy a musical instrument and learn how to play it. By far, the most popular choice is the piano. If you don’t play the piano and/or have extra money to spend, you may want to invest in a self-playing player piano, one of the more ingenious mechanical marvels of its time, and a very popular home entertainment choice in the first 30 years of the 20th Century. Player pianos could play automatically with the aid of two foot-pedals for pumping the air through the system to force the keys to move (later replaced with electric motors), and a scrolling paper roll with holes punched in it to tell the piano which notes to play, and how long to hold them. (The latter was an early form of software in the same family as the IBM punch cards of the 1930s, 40s, and 50s). If you live in a city (remember, we’re still in 1920), your nearest piano retailer is probably within comfortable walking distance of your home or office and sells, among other things, affordable pianos made right in the city where you live. (In New York City alone, there were over 150 piano manufacturers in the 1920s!) You could buy an upright piano made by one of the dozens of local piano manufacturers for as little as $150 in 1920, equal to $1,949.38 in 2020 currency, which was approachable for many families, especially with the aid of the weekly payment plans most piano retailers offered 100 years ago.
With a piano now in your home, you head to your local music shop (still in 1920) to purchase sheet music for some of the hit songs of the day, gather the family around the piano, and play your songs while everyone sings along. Merriment ensues and a good time is had by all. If you purchased a player piano, you could buy rolls of the latest hit songs at the same shop. (In the early 1920s, sales of player pianos alone neared 1,000,000 per year!) More often than not, this is the world in which your foundling piano made its first sounds.
Most of the pianos that average families purchased in the 1920s were large upright pianos made by small, local manufacturers which are totally unknown and forgotten today outside the piano business, and to most people inside the piano business as well. This is not surprising considering that in the total history of piano making in America, thousands of different piano makers have existed at one time or another, enough to fill a book the size of a small telephone directory. In 2020, only three piano makers still mass-produce pianos in America, plus a few boutique piano makers who make small numbers of individual pianos to order.
In light of the superabundance and affordability of pianos in the early 20th Century, and the fact that pianos are made of sturdy materials that last for decades, such as iron, steel, brass, wood, felt, and leather, it’s no wonder that there are still thousands of these pianos scattered in homes, churches, and schools all over the country. However, their carefully calibrated mechanical parts have usually been seriously compromised by wear & tear after 100 years, not to mention dry rot, rust, and damage from mice or insects, even if the outer cabinet still looks nice. Of course, there are exceptions; we have seen pianos dating back to the 1890s that still had ALL of their original parts and functioned at a high level, but that’s not typical. For example, in the video below from 2009, the present writer is demonstrating an all-original Steinway upright from 1894, the last such all-original upright piano of this age we have had in stock. (For those who are fact-checking, Scott Joplin’s “Magnetic Rag” was published in 20 years after this piano was built  and not 10 years after  as I incorrectly stated in the video. I really ought to know better!)
Many people who find themselves in possession of a 100-plus-year old piano don’t need or want it but don’t know how or where to sell it, or how much to ask for it. The piano’s advanced age may seem to qualify it for valuable antique status, but sadly, this is almost never true, even if its ornate Old World cabinetry makes it look like it should be a priceless antique. Any piano’s ultimate purpose, then as now, is to be a reliable, fully functional, and tunable musical instrument. Otherwise, it’s just a big, heavy piece of antique furniture taking up space in your home. If you want a reliable, functional, and tunable musical instrument in your home, you will have to have your antique piano professionally restored, which can be quite expensive, or you have to buy a younger piano. Very few piano stores have any interest in buying and rebuilding pianos from 100 years ago unless the piano in question was made by a tiny handful of high-end piano manufacturers, like Steinway to name the best-known example. Otherwise, the cost of restoration could never be recovered in reselling the piano, to say nothing of making a profit.
Before the Great Depression, even families living in tenement housing would often pool their resources to purchase an upright piano for the common hallway to be shared by multiple families. If you lived in a big city like Boston, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, or Chicago, just to name a few, it was likely that your family piano was made by one of the numerous piano manufacturers in your city. Several decades ago, I owned a large upright made by the Claxton Piano Company of Chicago made sometime in the early 1900s. (I was not raised in Chicago, but after several generations of ownership, pianos often end up far from where they were first purchased.) Claxton was just one of many piano makers in Chicago before 1930. Even after 30 years in the piano business, I have never encountered another Claxton piano…not once…not EVER! In the voluminous Pierce Piano Atlas, Claxton only gets a single-line listing that shows serial numbers assigned to pianos made between 1905 and 1915. Considering the years of work and research that goes into the Pierce Piano Atlas, it is likely that there is no other extant information on Claxton pianos besides what the Pierce Piano Atlas has to offer. Could it be that Claxton was only in business for 10 years? It’s certainly possible. A piano maker in business only a few years before folding or getting absorbed by a larger piano maker was not uncommon 100 years ago considering the intense competition and abundance of piano makers.
The abundance of pianos 100 years ago was sustainable because piano factories could mass-produce pianos cheaply using assembly line techniques, plus a much higher percentage of the population could read music passably and could play the piano well enough to manage the usually simple piano parts to popular songs. This changed dramatically in the 1930s when the Great Depression forced many families to choose cheaper and smaller media like radios and phonographs as their main source of home entertainment, forcing a sizable majority of American piano makers out of business. Consequently, learning to read music and play an instrument as a routine part of most people’s early education also declined.
My old Claxton piano is one example of hundreds of small piano makers that went out of business 90-100+ years ago, whose few surviving pianos have little to no resale value today, and are probably near the end of their useful life as viable musical instruments. If you could find an old piano enthusiast in your area to give you a few hundred dollars for such a piano, regardless of condition or quality, that would probably be the best outcome you could realistically hope for.
Until next time, thanks for reading.
Paul Yarish, RPT