- No Japanese pianos not made for the American market. Most Japanese pianos made for North America are seasoned to minimize the damage caused by extreme dryness. Unless rebuilt, Japanese pianos made for other parts of the world (so-called gray-market pianos) may be slightly more susceptible to this kind of damage. This is not usually a problem for pianos in the home, where the owner can take measures to control the climate near the piano, but churches and schools are not usually known for exacting standards of temperature and humidity control. Anyway, most gray-market pianos are more than 20 years old. See the discussion of gray-market pianos in the Piano Buyer article, “Buying a Used or Restored Piano.”
- No piano that doesn't have a clean bill of health from a reliable technician. Despite a venerable brand name, any piano may have been in a fire, a flood, a wet basement, or been damaged by mice, spillage, or abuse.
- Valuable old premium-quality grands need to come with an estimate of needed repairs and, preferably, a donation for rebuilding. It's all well and good to say that your organization has a Steinway, but not if it can't be used and you can't afford to repair it.
Having the Piano Appraised
If the donor claims a value for tax purposes of more than $5,000 for a donated piano, he or she will need an independent written appraisal by a qualified appraiser in order to establish that value. Before doing anything, the donor should contact her or his CPA; the IRS rules regarding appraisals have recently become more restrictive. (See also the accompanying article about appraisals.)
If you are the donor and have no idea of the piano's value, you'll need to get an initial appraisal or opinion of value. If you ask dealers to buy it and they show no interest, that's a pretty good indication of its value. Don't be surprised if, despite your sentimental attachment to it, what you thought was a valuable antique turns out to have no market value at all. You will, of course, have to pay to have a technician evaluate the instrument.
The donor should also get local estimates of the cost of moving, so that the recipient organization doesn't have to bear this expense. Make sure that the movers are bonded and insured.
Disposal of Unwanted Instruments
Pastors tell me that getting rid of a donated piano is nearly impossible until the original donor is out of the picture, and agree that turning down an unsuitable instrument is easier than trying to replace it once it has been accepted. One pastor told me that, in 45 years, he had never seen a piano disposed of by a church. Nonetheless, I occasionally see a church trying to sell an old piano, under the impression that someone can use it. I usually discourage people from buying a piano from a church; such instruments have usually seen their maximum useful life, and consumers who choose this option usually don't have the money to put them in decent playing condition, even when that's possible. Also, I caution parents not to saddle a young student with a barely functioning piano because it is so discouraging to the student's progress.
I recommend that church administrators not resort to just pushing unusable pianos aside, but seriously consider disposing of them; it's harder to budget for new instruments as long as the old ones still haunt the premises. Piano dealers and movers I've called have mentioned disposal options that range from $150 to $350, depending on the logistics, the difficulty of the move, and the size of the piano. Disposal is best left to professionals; even though in this case a careless move to the dump will do no harm to the piano, keep in mind the safety of the workers and the potential damage to the facilities. (If the piano is inappropriate for the institution, but not yet ready for the dump, see the sidebar for other ideas of what to do with it.)
I also advise churches and other institutions to keep a file on every piano in their possession. This file should include any invoices for service and comments left by technicians. This trail of evidence becomes very useful to the administrator, who can pull out years' worth of invoices for perusal by committee members and note the problems of individual instruments. Following a change in administration, it will also save countless hours for new staff members, who won't have to begin the process of evaluation all over again.
Over the past 35 years, piano technician Sally Phillips has worked in virtually every aspect of the piano industry — service, retail, wholesale, and manufacturing. In her role as a concert-piano technician, she has tuned and prepared pianos for concert and recording work in such venues as Town Hall, Alice Tully Hall, and the Kennedy Center, and for such orchestras as the Cincinnati Symphony, the BBC Concert Orchestra, and the Vienna Philharmonic. At present, Phillips lives in Kentucky and works throughout the southeastern U.S. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.