By Larry Fine
The valuation of used pianos is difficult. Prices of used pianos vary wildly, depending on local economies, supply and demand, and the cosmetics and playing condition of the instrument at hand, including the amount and quality of any restoration work done. As if this weren’t enough, it’s almost a certainty that no two piano technicians or piano salespeople would return exactly the same verdict on any given piano’s value. Art being what it is, beauty is in the eye and ear of the potential purchaser, and values are very much subjective.
In addition, when considering a used piano being sold by a private, non-commercial seller, keep in mind that many such sellers really have no firm idea of how much their piano is worth, and have made up something based on little more than a wish. Therefore, don’t let a high asking price keep you from making a more reasonable offer. Ask the seller how they arrived at their asking price. If you can back up your offer with your own technician’s appraisal (including a list of the things that need to be fixed), credible listings of similar pianos, or other evidence of the piano’s true value, you stand a good chance of getting the piano at or close to your price.
In this article, I’ve tried to assemble some information and tools to help buyers and sellers understand the appraisal process and determine the value of a piano within a reasonable range.
Fair market value is the price at which an item would change hands between a willing buyer and a willing seller, neither of whom is compelled to buy or sell, and each of whom has reasonable knowledge of the relevant facts.
Appraisers of used pianos and other consumer goods typically use three different methods to determine fair market value: comparable sales, depreciation, and idealized value minus the cost of restoration.
The comparable sales method compares the piano being appraised with recent actual selling prices of other pianos of like brand, model, age, condition, and location. Generally speaking, this is the most accurate method of determining value when one has access to a body of information on recent sale prices of comparable items. The problem here is that, with few exceptions, it’s rare to find several recently sold pianos that are perfect matches for all these criteria. There is no central repository for sales information on used pianos, and each appraiser or technician, over a lifetime, sees pianos that are so diverse and scattered as to these criteria that they are likely to be of only limited value as appraisal guides. (Exceptions might be technicians or dealers who specialize in used Yamaha, Kawai, or Steinway pianos, brands that have attained near commodity status in the piano business.)
To handle this problem, I and my staff have attempted to approximate the fair market value of pianos of various types, ages, and conditions by querying a number of piano technicians about their memories of comparable sales. The result is the accompanying chart, “Prices of Used Pianos,” though I stress that we do not have enough data to do more than make rough estimates. This chart is most useful for determining the approximate value of many brands of older piano for which it would otherwise be difficult to find enough comparable sales to determine a value. Understandably, however, the price ranges shown in the chart are quite broad. The chart is organized by categories of vertical and grand piano broken down by age (pre-1950 and 1950–1985), quality (Average, Better, Best), and condition (Worse, Average, Better, Reconditioned, and Rebuilt). For prices of pianos made since 1985, I suggest using the depreciation method, described later in this article.
Prices of Used Pianos (US$)
The price ranges given reflect the wide possibilities a buyer faces in the used-piano market. At the low end of each range is a price one might find in a poor economy or a “buyer’s market,” where supply exceeds demand. At the high end, the prices are consistent with both a better economy and a higher demand for the type of instrument indicated. In some categories, the prices we received from our sources varied all over the map, and we had to use a considerable amount of editorial discretion to produce price ranges that were not so broad as to be useless as guidelines, and to retain at least a modicum of internal consistency in the chart. For that reason, you should expect to find some markets or situations in which prices higher or lower than those given here are normal or appropriate.
The prices given here for pianos that are not reconditioned or rebuilt (those labeled Worse, Average, Better) are the price ranges you might expect to find when buying pianos from private owners. The Reconditioned and Rebuilt categories represent prices you might encounter when shopping for such pianos at piano stores or from piano technicians, with a warranty given. In some cases we have omitted the Rebuilt price because we would not expect rebuilding to be cost-effective for pianos of that general age and type. In every case, prices assume the least expensive style and finish; prices for pianos with fancier cabinets, exotic veneers, inlays, and so forth, could be much higher.
“Best brands” include Steinway, Mason & Hamlin, and the very best European makes, such as Bechstein, Blüthner, and Bösendorfer. “Better brands” include the well-regarded older names mentioned in the accompanying article for the pre-1930 period, such as Knabe and Chickering; and names such as Baldwin, Everett, Kawai, Sohmer, Yamaha, and others of similar quality for the 1950–1985 period. “Average brands” are pretty much everything else.
Worse, Average, and Better refer to the condition of the piano in comparison to the amount of wear and tear one would expect from the piano’s age. However, even Worse pianos should be playable and serviceable. Note that because many buyers are quite conscious of a piano’s appearance, pianos that are in good shape musically but in poor shape cosmetically will often sell at a price more consistent with the Worse range than with a higher one. This offers an opportunity for the less furniture-conscious buyer to obtain a bargain.
For a discussion of the definitions of reconditioned and rebuilt, please see the section “Buying a Restored Piano” in this article. For the purposes of this chart, however, we have adopted the requirement that a piano has not been rebuilt unless its pinblock has been replaced, and that a piano that has been restrung, but without a new pinblock, is considered to have been reconditioned. Note that these definitions are not precise, and that both the quality and the quantity of the work can vary greatly, depending on the needs of the instrument and the capabilities of the restorer. These variations should be taken into account when determining the piano’s value.
The depreciation method of determining fair market value is based on the fact that many types of consumer goods lose value over time at a more or less predictable rate. A depreciation schedule, such as the one here, shows how much an unrestored used piano is worth as a percentage of the actual selling price of a new piano of comparable quality. The problem here is that so many older brands are now made by companies different from the original, in different factories and parts of the world, and to different standards, that it can be difficult or impossible to determine what constitutes a “comparable” new piano. Thus, this method of figuring value is best used for pianos of relatively recent make when the model is still in production, or for older pianos whose makers have remained under relatively constant ownership, location, and standards, and for which, therefore, a comparable model can reasonably be determined.
Appreciate or Depreciate?
Some piano manufacturers market their instruments as “investments” and tout their potential for appreciation in value. If that’s the case, then why a depreciation schedule? Do pianos appreciate or depreciate?
It depends on how you look at it. Imagine parking a sum of money in a savings account earning 2 percent interest at a time when inflation is at 3 percent. Each year, the balance in the account grows . . . and loses purchasing power. This is something like the situation with pianos. After a large initial drop in value during the first five to ten years (because, unless given an incentive to buy used, most people would prefer a new piano), used pianos lose value in comparison with similar new ones at about 1.5 to 2 percent per year.
However, because the price of everything (including pianos) is rising in price at 3 or 3.5 percent per year (the rate of inflation), the value of your used piano will appear to rise by 1 to 2 percent per year (the difference between the depreciation and the inflation).
Why do we figure depreciation from a comparable new piano instead of figuring appreciation from the original price of the used one? Theoretically, it could be done either way. But the price of a comparable new piano is easier to look up — one might have to do a lot of research to find out what grandma paid for her piano. And the price of the new piano embodies all the inflation that has occurred between the original purchase of the used piano and the present, avoiding the trouble of having to look up the change in the cost of living during that time. The case is even stronger for using this method with foreign-made pianos: Tying the value of a used piano to the cost of a comparable new one makes it unnecessary to calculate the changes in the currency exchange rate — and sometimes changes in the currency itself! — that have occurred since the used piano was new.
Figuring depreciation from a comparable new piano is not without its own problems, however. With so many piano brands of the past now defunct or made to entirely different standards (usually in China), the task of figuring out what constitutes a “comparable” new piano can sometimes be formidable, if not impossible.
Note that depreciation is from the current price of the model, not the original price, because the current price takes into account inflation and, if applicable, changes in the value of foreign currencies. The values are meant to reflect what the piano would sell for between private, non-commercial parties. I suggest adding 20 to 30 percent to the computed value when the piano is being sold by adealer, unrestored, but with a warranty. These figures are intended only as guidelines, reflecting our general observation of the market. “Worse,” “Average,” and “Better” refer to the condition of the used piano for its age. A separate chart is given for Steinway pianos. Other fine pianos, such as Mason & Hamlin, or some of the best European brands, may command prices between the regular and Steinway figures.
Idealized Value Minus the Cost of Restoration
This is the difference between the cost of a rebuilt piano and the cost to restore the unrebuilt one to like-new condition. For example, if a piano, rebuilt, would be worth $50,000, and it would cost $30,000 to restore the unrebuilt one to like-new condition, then according to this method the unrebuilt piano would be worth $20,000. This method can be used when a piano needs extensive, quantifiable repair work. It’s not appropriate to use this method for an instrument that is relatively new or in good condition.
Other Types of Valuation
Several other types of valuation are sometimes called for:
Replacement value is what it would cost to replace the used piano with a brand-new one. This value is often sought when someone has purchased an insurance policy with a rider that guarantees replacement of a lost or damaged piano with a new one instead of paying the fair market value of the used one. The problem here, again, is what brand and model of new piano to consider “comparable” if the original brand and model are no longer being made, or are not being made to the same standards.
Here it may be helpful to consult the rating chart in the Piano Buyer article “The New-Piano Market Today.” Choose a brand whose relationship to today’s piano market is similar to that the original brand bore to the piano market of its day. Whatever brand and model you choose, depending on how high a replacement value you seek, you can use either the manufacturer’s suggested retail price (highest), the approximate street price (lowest), or something in between. These prices, or information on how to estimate them, can be found in the “Model & Pricing Guide.”
Trade-in value is what a commercial seller would pay for the used piano, usually in trade (or partial trade) for a new one. This is discounted from the fair market value, typically by at least 20 to 30 percent, to allow the commercial seller to make a profit when reselling the instrument. (In practice, the commercial seller will often pay the fair market value for the used piano, but to compensate, will increase the price of the new piano to the consumer.)
Salvage value is what a dealer, technician, or rebuilder would pay for a piano that is essentially unplayable or unserviceable and in need of restoration. It can be determined using the idealized-value-minus-cost-of-restoration method, but discounted, like trade-in value, to allow the commercial seller to make a profit. Inspect, Inspect, Inspect
In closing, I’d like to remind you that your best protection against buyer’s remorse is having the piano inspected by a piano technician prior to purchasing it, particularly if the piano is more than ten years old. Sometimes it will be sufficient to speak to the seller’s technician about the piano, if he or she has serviced it regularly and has reason to believe that he or she will continue servicing it under your ownership. However, in most situations, you’ll be better off hiring your own technician. You can find a list of Registered Piano Technicians in your area on the website of the Piano Technicians Guild, www.ptg.org.
If you’re serious about buying a used piano, additional information in The Piano Book may be useful to you, including:
How to remove the outer cabinet parts to look inside the piano
How to do a preliminary inspection of a piano to rule out those that are not worth hiring a technician to inspect, including an extensive checklist of potential problem areas
A discussion of issues that frequently come up in regard to the rebuilding of Steinway pianos
A complete list of older Steinway models, from 1853 to the present
How to locate the serial number of a piano
A list of manufacturing dates and serial numbers for Steinway pianos
Steve Cohen assisted with updating the price chart and depreciation schedule.