What makes these vintage pianos so alluring? Many musicians and technicians believe that these instruments, when rebuilt, sound and play better than new pianos. However, no one knows for sure why this should be so, since most of the components in the piano are replaced during rebuilding. Some point to the fact that Steinway operated its own plate foundry until about World War II, afterward using a commercial plate foundry (which it now owns). Because this radical change in the manufacture of such an important component roughly corresponds with the end of the vintage era, and because the plate is one of the few original parts to survive the rebuilding process, some speculate that it holds the key to the difference. Others say it has to do with changes in the quality of the wood available to Steinway and other companies. Still others say it wasn't any single thing, but rather a combination of many fortuitous factors, including extremely skilled and talented craftsmen, that enabled these companies to make such special pianos during that period, but allegedly not afterward (though that doesn't explain why the rebuilt ones from that period should be better).
Steinway & Sons, for its part, disputes the entire idea that older Steinways are better, dismissing it as a romantic notion spread by purveyors of those pianos in their own financial interest. The company says it has done extensive testing of both plates and woods, and the idea that the older plates and woods were better has no scientific basis. It says it has also carefully inspected hundreds of older Steinways at its factory rebuilding facility, which is the largest Steinway rebuilding facility in the world, and finds no evidence that the older pianos were built better than today's — in fact, it believes that just the opposite is true. Steinway acknowledges that some pianists may prefer the sound of specific older pianos for subjective artistic reasons, but says that those considering the purchase of a restored, older instrument should do so to save money, not to seek better quality.
For more discussion of this topic, and of specific technical issues applicable to the rebuilding of a Steinway or Mason & Hamlin, please see The Piano Book.
How Much Is It Worth?
Three methods are typically used by professional appraisers to appraise pianos and many other goods: fair market value, depreciation, and idealized value minus the cost of restoration.
Fair market value is determined by comparing the piano being appraised to recent actual selling prices of other pianos of like brand, model, age, and condition. In the chart "Prices of Used Pianos," I and my staff have attempted to approximate the fair market value of pianos of various types, ages, and conditions, though I stress that we do not have enough data to do more than make rough estimates.
Note that insurance appraisals are often for "replacement cost." This is the cost of a new piano of the same or comparable make and model, not the fair market value of the used one.
A depreciation schedule, an example of which is provided here, shows how much a used piano is worth as a percentage of the actual selling price of a new piano of comparable quality (or of the same brand and model, if still in production and of the same quality).
Idealized value minus the cost of restoration is the difference between the cost of a rebuilt piano less the cost to restore the unrebuilt one to like-new condition. As an example, if a rebuilt piano of the same or comparable model costs $15,000, and it would cost $10,000 to restore your piano to like-new condition, then according to this method your unrebuilt piano is currently worth $5,000.
These three methods of appraising will typically yield three very different values. Which you choose to use will depend to some extent on your reason for having the piano appraised (buying, selling, insuring, etc.). Professional appraisers will sometimes use all three methods, then average them to obtain a final value.