Skulduggery in Piano Land


Dear Larry,

About 18 months ago I asked if you knew anything about Cunningham Piano Company, in Philadelphia, as a restorer for my Mom’s Steinway L grand. You reported hearing good things about them, and she eventually decided to have the work done there. Her piano has just returned home from the workshop, and Mom couldn’t be more pleased. In the course of the restoration, however, we learned something of the piano’s shady past that I thought you might find interesting.

In the mid-1970s, when I was little, we lived outside Philadelphia. Mom and Dad bought the piano in a private sale from a guy in Trevose, Pennsylvania. If there was any documentation, it was lost years ago. The plate stated the serial number as L 2260xx, dating it to about 1924. Mom has played the piano almost daily since buying it. She had the action regulated in 2008, and occasionally had it tuned; other than that, no work was done. By 2014, it was clear that the piano needed to be rebuilt: the crown of the soundboard was gone, it sounded like a tub, and the action and tone were very poor. In the course of looking for a restorer, I asked Jacobs Music, in Philadelphia, for the history of the serial number. They said that that number belonged to a vertical model K. When I talked to Cunningham, I gave them that serial number, and also the one from the keyslip—1251xx—which dated the piano to about 1907. Cunningham reported that the latter number belonged to a model K manufactured in Hamburg, Germany. We were pretty curious about what was going on.

Mom decided to have Cunningham do the work, and in late December of last year, the piano went downtown. After taking the piano apart, Cunningham told us that the real serial number was 1254xx, and that the scale design is that of a model O, not an L! The restorers said they saw evidence in several places of the real serial number having been erased or removed and the false ones applied.

The story gets better. When Mom and I visited Cunningham in May, we told all this to Rich Galassini, the owner. He remembered two other pianos with similar fiddling that had passed through the shop. He said that in both cases even the brand names were changed, in the first from a mediocre brand to a good one, and in the second, from one mediocre brand to another. When he said that those pianos had been bought privately in Trevose in the early 1970s, Mom and I almost fainted. It looks like there was a piano-fiddling ring outside Philadelphia some 40 years ago. It’s not possible to say why this fraud was done to Mom’s piano, just that it predates her purchase of it.

We’ve had a lot of fun imagining the piano’s shady life, and the reasons for its disguised identity. In need of cash, did the piano rent itself as an extra in gangster movies, lurking in the background with a fedora pulled down over its music stand? Was it a drop box for ill-gotten booty in some corrupt city? Any of these pasts might prompt entry into the Witness Protection Program.

I make light of the history, but I can think of no honest reason why an owner or seller would go to such lengths to obscure a piano’s identity. My guess is that the fraud was done either to increase or decrease the piano’s value, maybe during a nasty divorce or estate settlement.

After all this, my tech and I looked for as many serial numbers on my Steinway S as we could. They all agree with one another. Phew!

Laura Williams
Falmouth, Maine

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