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Striking A Chord: Used Pianos

With the Prices of New Grand Pianos Reaching the High Notes, High-Quality Used Pianos Have Become an Increasingly Attractive Alternative
Miles Chapin
From the Print Edition:
James Woods, May/Jun 97

(continued from page 2)

For example, the largest production piano in the world today, a 10-foot, two-inch grand by Fazioli, lists for $155,500 new, while a fully reconditioned art-case grand can be had for as little as $25,000 at Rutten's showroom. (Rutten is one of four American distributors for Fazioli, a highly sought-after Italian nameplate that recently entered the high-end market.) Fazioli makes six grand models, with list prices that range upwards from $65,000 for a five-foot, two-inch model. The firm manufactures 60 pianos annually, and Paolo Fazioli, who started building pianos almost two decades ago, says he'll cap production when he reaches 120 a year. To put this in perspective, a high-volume Asian manufacturer can turn out as many as 80 pianos a day.

Three other European manufacturers, the "three B's"--Bechstein, Blüthner and Bösendorfer--also manufacture quality high-end pianos. Bechstein and Blüthner have undergone ownership and factory changes in recent years--in Blüthner's case, the changes have been sped up by the unification of Germany--and both companies are producing pianos as good, and in some cases better, than they did a few years ago. They each produce a line of vertical (upright) and grand pianos, with prices ranging from about $20,000 to $160,000.

Bösendorfer, a highly revered Viennese manufacturer, makes one vertical model and six grands. A distinguishing feature of its four largest pianos is the keyboards, which provide more than the standard 88 notes: nine keys have been added to the bass end of the largest model, the nine-foot, six-inch "Imperial" ($165,000), and there are four extra keys in the bass of the next three smaller models. Little music has been written to take advantage of these extra notes, but the additional strings and enlarged soundboards generate greater resonance, especially in the bass register.

Steinway & Sons offers three models of vertical pianos and five grands. The grands range in size from the five-foot, one-inch baby grand Model S ($27,600) to the company's flagship nine-foot concert grand Model D ($71,900), the choice of most of the world's concert artists. Steinway pianos are manufactured in New York City and Hamburg, Germany. The instruments from each venue share some parts, and the company takes pains to minimize the differences between the two.

With this many new pianos around, many of the makers of low-volume, high-quality pianos who have a history of more than a few years are finding that the true competition is with their own instruments. Consequently, a company like Steinway does a large business in refurbishing its older pianos. A piano, like any machine with moving parts, will not last forever. Its works wear out to some extent after many years of use. Like an automobile, a used piano's value depends on the initial quality, what conditions it has endured during its lifetime and how well it has been maintained.

The market for older high-end instruments has exploded in recent years. Although a vertical piano by Broadwood, decorated with three small panels by the Victorian artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema, didn't meet its reserve bid of £20,000 ($30,800) at a 1995 auction in London, less than six months later the piano was purchased by composer Sir Andrew Lloyd Webber for £65,000. The piano had not been reconditioned and was barely playable. The record price at auction is another piano decorated by Alma-Tadema, an 1883 Steinway concert grand sold in 1980. Valued beforehand at $80,000 to $100,000, the piano sold for $360,000.

"It's definitely my experience that someone who collects furniture of Ruhlmann, or Majorelle, or François Linke, or even a contemporary like Wendell Castle, has not the faintest idea that these people also designed pianos," says Rutten. "This is my joy, to see people walking into my gallery dumbfounded that they've found a collection of 40 or 50 instruments, each one of which is made by a famous designer, priced less than a comparable [piece of furniture] by the same person."

It must be the "neither fish nor fowl" aspect of this market that confuses both the antique furniture crowd and the musical instrument people. Rutten agrees, calling it "quite a phenomenon." To illustrate his point, he refers to a magnificent Erard piano with a Majorelle-designed case that at this writing, sits in his showroom. The piano, for which Rutten is asking $116,000, is in very fine shape as an instrument and has a lovely warm tone typical of a straight-strung French piano from 1913. "It's from a period in Majorelle's creative life where the desks and the cabinets and the chairs and the armoires that he made are very highly desired," says Rutten. "A cabinet, or an armoire, of comparable size, even at auction, would sell for $200,000 to $300,000, depending on its condition and its provenance and its rarity. From an antiques dealer, it could go as high as $300,000, or even higher."

Rutten, who spent two years traveling in Asia before deciding to go into the piano business, has the passion of a zealot when it comes to art-case pianos. He wants to see them elevated to the same prominence as that enjoyed by, say, vintage Ferraris or Harley-Davidson motorcycles.

"For a limited number of reasons, pianos have never really achieved that status," he says. "If I can show the world that the most phenomenal things were executed on piano cases by the most famous people from art history, then I think I will get a true sense of accomplishment."

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