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Striking a Chord

With the Prices of New Grand Pianos Reaching the High Notes, High-Quality Used Pianos Have Become an Increasingly Attractive Alternative
Miles Chapin
Posted: June 1, 1997
Striking a Chord With the Prices of New Grand Pianos Reaching the High Notes, High-Quality Used Pianos Have Become an Increasingly Attractive Alternative

by Miles Chapin

Chances are there's a piano lurking somewhere in your childhood--maybe it was in the music room in grade school or in your grandmother's front parlor. But though we may be familiar with pianos, few people can say with any certainty what makes them work, or can articulate the difference between a flea market special and a concert grand.

The piano has held the central position in Western music for two centuries and, according to the Oxford Companion to Musical Instruments, more music has been written and published for the piano than for any other instrument. We carry images of the grand piano and its players in our hearts and minds--everything from Frédéric Chopin and his romantic compositions and Irving Berlin with his popular melodies to the flamboyant Liberace and the rambunctious Jerry Lee Lewis, who was reputed to have once set fire to a piano onstage. But regardless of who is striking the keys, be it an old-time master or a popular contemporary artist, a few intractable facts about grand pianos cannot be avoided: they are big, they are usually immobile and they are terribly expensive. But there is a lot more to the story of the piano, and the history of the instrument is far from finished.

A grand piano may be the most complicated piece of machinery made by hand in the world today. More than 12,000 parts, mostly wood and mainly fashioned by manual labor, go into a grand piano, and it can sometimes take up to four years to go from the tree to the concert hall or living room, depending on the manufacturer. The metal frame, hammers, strings, tuning pins and woodwork that you see underneath the top of a modern grand piano embody nearly 300 years of technological progress that has evolved toward one goal: to create a musical instrument with the greatest sensitivity to the artist's touch and with the highest potential for the production of sound. Yet these instruments are also capable of great delicacy--the music of French composer Erik Satie must be played on the same instrument that can handle a Tchaikovsky concerto. Or, to put it another way, the same piano that can serve the delicious trills and runs of a jazz virtuoso such as Art Tatum must also handle a flat-out rocker like Little Richard.

However, unlike many other highly engineered objects (sports cars are a good example), pianos are often thought of as mere decoration. Isn't there a white baby grand piano in every New York penthouse in every MGM musical? What about the magnificent White House piano that sits in the East Room--a gilded mahogany case embellished with scenes of Americana, seeming to float above golden legs carved in the shape of eagles? Do these instruments ever get played?

In the case of the White House Steinway (the company's 300,000th instrument, presented to the country as a gift from Steinway & Sons in 1938), the answer is yes, occasionally. For the baby grand in the Hollywood films, the answer is probably no. In fact, it's likely that the piano at the old MGM studios wasn't even a musical instrument at all, but simply a white, piano-shaped object used as set decoration. The music, if the piano was to be played at all in a movie, was added in post-production.

For many people, a piano is something that simply sits in a corner of the living room collecting dust, a grand symbol of civilized living. If the name on its keylid is a prestigious one, so much the better. Others with a more musical bent may want an instrument that has a good touch and a nice sound at the lowest possible price. This dichotomy has affected the piano market for decades, making the purchase of a piano, new or used, a stressful event for many buyers.

In recent years, as many people's incomes have soared, a new buyer has emerged--one who is as interested in the musical qualities as much as the decorative, status or investment aspect of the instrument. The market for high-quality used instruments that satisfy both criteria is soaring.

Maximiliaan Rutten, a Manhattan dealer in the high end of the market, describes this new breed as "very sophisticated, very well-educated, wealthy individuals who are at a point where they want to reward themselves and their families with the best of the best. If they have a serious piano education, they may emphasize the decorative aspects of the piano less. If they do not have that background, they are very often admirers of music, and they go after a piano that is not only high quality, but also an instrument that in style and design matches their interior."

In choosing a piano, you are looking at a commodity that must serve several purposes at once. Whether you choose an instrument for its looks, its sound or its investment potential, you should proceed cautiously. There is today, and historically has always been, a large measure of chicanery in the piano trade. Fortunately, quality pianos are tremendously durable and the basic design hasn't changed much for almost a hundred years. Pianos are plentiful, and numerous options are open to the buyer in terms of new instruments, older instruments both refurbished and not, and the specialty trade in one-of-a-kind or limited-edition pianos.

But you must look carefully; two pianos that appear nearly identical may carry vastly different price tags: one could go for a few hundred dollars while the other might cost a hundred thousand. Is there a difference between them? You bet. It gets confusing very quickly, though, when you are dealing with a two-headed beast like a collectible piano. To appreciate some of the subtleties, it helps to have a little historical background.

The instrument generally regarded as the earliest ancestor of the modern piano was "invented" by Bartolomeo Cristofori, an Italian craftsman at the Medici court, around 1700. Three of his instruments still exist--one is in New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. In creating his "Arpicembalo che fà il piano e il forte," as he called it--a harpsichord that could play quietly and loudly--Cristofori adapted the physics of the clavichord, a popular instrument of his day, but with one important innovation. To improve upon the limited vibration that the clavichord's string produced, Cristofori devised a free-falling hammer mechanism (called the "action") that would allow the string to vibrate along its entire length. The repetitive movement of the mechanism (which lies between the piano key and a string) enabled trills and flourishes to be played that previously could not.

This innovation also made one other crucial thing possible: the ability of the keyboard artist to vary the sound the instrument produces by varying the touch upon the keys. Harpsichords, which were the primary stringed keyboard instruments of Cristofori's day, cannot do this--their strings are excited by plucking, and their action is far less sensitive to the artist's touch. The organ, the other keyboard instrument in wide use in 1700, is similarly limited in its expressive range. The introduction of this new instrument, it can be argued, altered the course of musical history; would Chopin have created his romantic Ballades if the only instrument available to him was a pipe organ?

Within a few years of Cristofori's invention, the pianoforte, as it came to be known (piano meaning soft, and forte, loud), displaced both the harpsichord and the clavichord as the premier stringed keyboard instrument. Craftsmen, mainly in Vienna, London and Paris, adapted Cristofori's action for use in their own instruments, and the engineering advanced rapidly. Competition was intense. By 1850, names such as Broadwood, Pleyel, Erard, Bösendorfer, Blüthner and Bechstein were well established, but it was at the International Exposition of 1867 in Paris where a grand piano from the young American firm of Steinway & Sons caused a sensation.

This piano included several modifications that created a bigger, more responsive sound than had ever been heard before. Collectively, these innovations were known as the "Steinway System." In addition to garnering gold medals, and the instantaneous prominence that went with them, the company also came under the intense scrutiny of other piano makers. While patented at the time, Steinway innovations such as the one-piece overstrung cast-iron frame and the solid bentwood rim were rapidly adopted by nearly every major piano builder, and have since become the standard of the industry. They can be found underneath the top of just about any grand piano made since the 1930s.

The story of the House of Steinway is uniquely American. Founded in New York in 1853 by Henry Englehard Steinway, an illiterate German cabinetmaker and musical instrument builder, and four of his five sons (the fifth stayed behind in Seesen, Germany, but joined his brothers in New York in 1865), the firm became, within a few years, the preeminent maker of pianos in the world--a position it enjoys to this day. Then, as now, Steinway made pianos both for the home market and the concert stage, realizing early on that there was a causative connection between the two. The company pioneered the sponsorship of touring legendary piano soloists such as Anton Rubinstein and Ignacy Paderewski, making sure that the artists' testimonials were prominently featured in Steinway's advertising. The guiding hand and business acumen of Henry's son William, and his relations who ran the company after William's death in 1896, remained consistent; the family saw to it that an image of civilized life and the pleasures of living in a gracious, culturally enhanced home was emphasized as much as the pianos themselves. Since this coincided with the emergence of the middle class, the timing was perfect.

With few home leisure activities available at the turn of the century, a large portion of disposable income often went towards the purchase of the ubiquitous piano in the front parlor. According to D.W. Fostle, author of The Steinway Saga (Scribner, 1995), musical instruments made up 7 percent of the value of all consumer durables produced in the United States in 1904, and one dollar in seven was spent on a "cultural" product. Without radio, television, movies, home stereo and computers as competition, consumers poured a lot of money into the piano business.

For some well-to-do Americans, a standard-issue piano was not enough. Maybe it wouldn't fit in with their decor, or the buyers wished to announce their arrival on the social scene by commissioning a unique instrument. To satisfy such longings, a rarified category called the "art-case" piano emerged just after the Civil War. The market for these special instruments originated in Europe, but the newfound wealth of the Industrial Revolution gave it a great push in the United States. Steinway & Sons worked with such people as Joseph Burr Tiffany, George Schastey, Herter Brothers, Pottier and Stymus, Hunt Brothers and Jules Bouy to fashion pianos in America, while in Europe illustrious cabinetmakers such as Louis Majorelle, François Linke and Emile-Jacques Ruhlmann created piano cases for nearly all of the major manufacturers. Many of these pianos still exist, in varying conditions, and a few are being created today by contemporary artists such as Hans Hollein, Christian Adam, David Linley and Wendell Castle.

This is where the top money for pianos goes, and this is the niche that the 31-year-old Manhattan dealer Rutten has developed since opening his own piano showroom, Maximiliaan's House of Grand Pianos, in 1992. "It was natural," he says, "that four years ago a lot of people thought, 'Well, he's just a baby, he's just come to this country, he'll sell a few pianos and then go out of business as many others did before him.'"

But Rutten proved the skeptics wrong, and his business has flourished since he arrived in New York from Amsterdam in 1992. Last summer, he expanded from the 12th floor to a more spacious, street-level space in the New York Design Center on Lexington Avenue. Working the fine line between the used piano market and the antiques business, Rutten, who once considered pursuing a career as a concert pianist, understands both sides of the question. "Most [piano] dealers in this country, and in Europe, shy away from buying art-case pianos on speculation, especially from the high-end manufacturers," says Rutten. "They have to deal with craftsmen that they may not be as familiar with. I stay away from the standard cases. You definitely want to go about the restoration of the [art-case] piano, especially the refinishing of the case, very cautiously. If you open the lid of a piano, you're looking at 12,000 moving parts, and there are very few people who have enough knowledge to know what's going on in there. We restore the instruments to the extent necessary to bring out the full musical glory." Rutten makes sure that the musical aspects of his pianos are given as much attention as the case work; he has five workrooms, including two in Manhattan, dedicated to restoration.

Rutten says that the availability of high-quality restorable instruments is quite limited. His pianos, with a few interesting exceptions, subscribe to the Steinway System of design and are meant to be played regularly. Visitors to his showroom spend equal time evaluating the pianos as musical instruments as they do assessing them as antiques. Compared to a new piano, an older model with a prestigious case may often represent a bargain.

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."

His efforts are paying off.

"I think now, after four years, there's a definite trend," he says, "partially because of the work that we've done in professional communities--musicians, interior designers, architects--where art-case pianos are regaining interest and growing in popularity. You can see it. For example, you see that Steinway is now making Victorian-style legs again, and doing a wonderful job."

Recently, Steinway quickly sold out its 143-piano limited edition "Instrument of the Immortals," a re-creation of a model it first produced in 1885. The company plans to create more of these special limited-edition pianos in the near future, including a model this year that will celebrate the 200th birthday of Henry Englehard Steinway. For Steinway & Sons, the market is definitely coming full circle. Rutten has many Steinway pianos in his showroom, including a 1929 "75th Anniversary" model designed to look like a harpsichord from the 1700s. And Steinway continues to work with individual designers on one-of-a-kind pianos, as it has for many years. Its first art-case piano was made in 1857, three years after the company's founding, and some people at Steinway's New York factory expect to see that instrument come back for refurbishing any day now.

Miles Chapin is a fifth-generation descendant of Henry Englehard Steinway. Fine Tuning

Pianos are built to last, but it is inevitable that age will leave some mark--pianos by both nature and design do not endure forever. It is not easy, therefore, to assess the value of a particular piano either as an instrument or as an investment without a certain amount of knowledge of both pianos and the market for them.

To find out more about how a piano is made and what to look for when examining a used piano, The Piano Book by Larry Fine ($16.95 paperback, Brookside Press, Boston, revised 1994) is a good place to start. Fine also offers a candid assessment of the various nameplates available as new and used instruments. A photographic history of the piano is available in David Crombie's Piano ($35 hardcover, Miller Freeman Books, 1995). This large-format book contains information on many historic instruments, plus detailed photographs of contemporary pianos. Eighty Eight Keys: The Making of a Steinway Piano by Miles Chapin, with illustrations by Rodica Prato (Clarkson Potter Books, 1997) shows how a Steinway piano is manufactured, and gives an overview of the history of the piano and of Steinway & Sons.

In most cases it is best to use the services of a reliable dealer. Maximiliaan's House of Grand Pianos is located in New York City; phone (800) 742-6607. In Boston, the venerable firm of M. Steinert & Co. can be reached at (617) 426-1900. In the Midwest, Schmidt Music in Minneapolis (612/339-4811) carries a full line of new and used pianos. On the West Coast, Fields Pianos, in Santa Ana, California (714/622-2117), is gaining a reputation for quality pianos and service. Steinway & Sons maintains a large inventory of used Steinways (both refurbished and not) and rebuilds its own instruments. You can contact the company at Steinway Hall in Manhattan at (212) 246-1100.

If you choose to go it alone, the services of an independent, trained piano technician (look under "Piano" in the yellow pages in your area) can help you avoid the pitfalls of shopping for a used piano from a private individual, at auction or at an institutional sale, such as from a music school. As for major auction houses, pianos are usually thought of as furniture and included in that type of sale. However, Sotheby's of London has an annual auction of high-end keyboard instruments. Be forewarned, though--you will be bidding against experts, and the quantity of super-premium pianos available is very small.

--MC

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