Among dealers in antiques, the term often means anything more than 100 years old. This is problematic when applied to pianos—there is no way to define a date of manufacture that automatically qualifies a piano for a certain monetary value based solely on its age. Rather, its value, if any, may come from other features of the instrument: ornate casework, superior performance, or its character as a historical artifact.
The truth is that most pianos that have survived more than a century have little or no financial, musical, or historical value. They’re usually not old enough or rare enough to warrant interest as historical artifacts, and even those that are may have little value beyond a purely academic interest. In some cases, a newer instrument may be of greater value than an older one because of a decorative art case, superior condition, or simply because it’s a better piano. Restoration can increase the performance value of an instrument, but unless proper conservation techniques are used, the restoration may actually reduce the instrument’s historical value. Finally, it should be kept in mind that during most of the history of keyboard instruments, along with exquisite examples of the craft have come very modestly designed instruments priced for the average family.
Still, every once in a while, an older instrument with special value surfaces. This can happen, for example, during the settlement of an estate that includes a piano that has been in the same family for generations. Sometimes an instrument’s decrepit condition hides its historical value even from seasoned dealers in antiques. The rest of this article gives an overview of the subject of antique pianos, with an eye toward distinguishing pianos that deserve further research into their possible special value from pianos that are merely old.
Due to its imprecision, antique is not a word usually used by experts in early keyboard instruments, a category that also includes harpsichords and clavichords. Most of these experts agree that, broadly speaking, early instruments stopped being made around 1860, with the advent of the mass production of modern pianos. It is primarily instruments made before that date that have potential value as historical artifacts or antiques. Antique furniture is similarly categorized, but with the date hovering around 1820. Mass production and steam-powered woodworking were introduced gradually over a period of several decades into the workshops of both furniture and instrument makers, so examples dating from one or two decades after these dates may also have historical value, especially if they demonstrate specific stages in the gradual transition from antique to modern. Some European piano makers transitioned to modern features a little later than their American counterparts, but most pianos made after about 1880 are considered thoroughly modern.
Early keyboard instruments varied so dramatically in design that each maker might have had a variety of pedals, stops, and other features that were unique to that maker. The progress among piano makers during the late 18th and early 19th centuries was so rapid that, for some makers, almost no two instruments exhibited precisely identical construction. This is one of the more compelling reasons to salvage genuinely antique instruments when possible, or at least to photograph and otherwise document their details.
The earliest pianos needed no metal reinforcement to their wooden structures, as their keyboard compasses were small—the Cristofori piano of 1720 had only 54 notes—and the soft brass and iron strings exerted relatively low tension. In the early 1800s, a combination of advances in metallurgy and changes in musical styles led to a gradual expansion of the keyboard range, eventually to 88 notes, and the use of steel strings at high tension for greater sound volume. This made necessary the use of iron reinforcing bars and plates to counteract the much higher stresses placed on the wooden structure.
Among European makers, iron first appeared in the structure as early as 1808, and became common by the early 1840s. In the U.S., Alpheus Babcock received a patent for a one-piece metallic frame in 1825, and most U.S. makers had transitioned to this type of structure by about 1850. European makers tended to use iron bars until later in the 19th century, which can make the dating of European pianos confusing to American appraisers used to seeing cast-iron plates only in American pianos made much earlier. Nonetheless, if a piano has little or no iron in its structure, or anything less than a cast-iron plate, in most cases it was made before 1850 and merits further research into its possible historical value. Other indications of antique status are bichord stringing (two strings per note) throughout, or a keyboard compass of fewer than 85 notes.
Knowledge of historic furniture styles and cabinet woods is also helpful in identifying a piano’s age and importance. Early pianos were fashioned after harpsichords and had roughly the same flügel (wing) shape as a modern grand. The square piano, a more cost-effective and space-saving rectangular shape introduced to appeal to the rising middle class, first appeared in the mid- to late 1700s as rather small instruments, and became wildly popular—and much larger—in the early to mid-1800s.
By the 1850s, most piano makers were using steel strings and some kind of iron in their structures, and had increased the keyboard compass to 85 notes. This resulted in much heavier pianos—some square pianos (now called square grands) were as long as seven feet and weighed over 800 pounds—that required much more substantial cases and legs. Massive pianos with very heavy legs are most likely from the late 19th century.
When examining an older piano, it’s best to use the services of a piano technician with some knowledge of piano history, rather than an expert on antique furniture. The furniture expert may have little knowledge of the structural and mechanical aspects of pianos, and so may be unable to identify a historically important instrument.
Experiments with upright pianos began as early as the mid-1700s, mostly by turning grands on end. Very few examples of these instruments survive. The modern upright developed gradually throughout the 1800s, and by the 1870s had reached its final form and overtaken sales of square pianos. By 1887, Steinway had made its last square piano; the upright reigned as its replacement.
Uprights were preferred to square pianos because they were easier to manufacture, structurally more stable, took up less floor space, and produced a greater volume of sound. Because of their more recent development, however, most uprights do not technically qualify as antique instruments or have historical value, though a few of the better-made and more ornate examples in good condition from the late 1800s and early 1900s may have some value due to their elaborate cases. The worth of these and other pianos valued for their cabinetwork will depend on a combination of brand name, rarity, condition, and which furniture styles are currently being sought by collectors.
By the mid-19th century, the greater scale tension had so increased pianos’ volume and projection that a concert grand could cut through a large orchestra and project clearly to the back of a large hall; the repertoire and concert tradition were thus changed forever. A remaining challenge, however, was to provide the player with heavier hammers and a more reliable action that could meet the requirements of the new demanding repertoire and larger halls.
The actions of early pianos were developed in many ways by various makers. The Viennese action was light and fast but lacked power, whereas the rival English action was heavier and more powerful but lacked speed. In 1821, Sébastien Érard patented the double-escapement action, which allowed for a heavier hammer and more power without sacrificing speed and repetition. Over the next 50 years, this and other actions continued to compete, culminating, by about 1875, in the nearly universal adoption of Steinway’s version of the Érard action. Pianos with actions that are not completely modern merit further research into possible historical value. Bösendorfer, however, continued to use the Viennese action until as late as 1911.
When researching a piano for its possible antique value, it’s important to ascertain the date of manufacture and any other available information about the instrument. A resource widely used by professionals in the field of early pianos is Clinkscale Online, at www.earlypianos.org, a research database dedicated to the cataloging of pianos made before 1860. In my experience, however, most pianos suspected of being antiques are actually modern instruments; I would suggest first consulting the Pierce Piano Atlas, which lists dates of manufacture by serial number for hundreds of brands of modern and near-modern pianos. Although not without error, Pierce is a reasonably accurate tool for identifying piano makers and their years of activity. Most of these makers are no longer in business, which means there’s rarely a way to verify any more than the piano’s approximate age. Steinway has kept very good records of its own instruments, however; if you have a Steinway’s serial number, its year of manufacture can be obtained from the factory.
Photographs by Thomas Strange, from Facing South: Keyboard Instruments in the Early Carolinas, by Thomas Strange and Patrick Hawkins (Clemson University Press, 2018). Used by permission.
I would like to thank Tom Strange and Roy Fluhrer, of the Carolina Music Museum, in Greenville, South Carolina, for taking the time to give me a tour of the museum’s new facility, and for allowing me to use their photographs in this article. The Carolina Music Museum is a marvelous collection of early keyboard instruments that offers visitors the rare opportunity to actually play the pianos.