What factors determine piano values, and how much is your piano worth? While a piano, like anything else, is ultimately worth whatever a seller can get for it, a piano’s real value is the result of many factors. This article will focus on a piano’s fair market value and discuss some of the variables that influence it. First, let’s take a look at what “value” is and isn’t.
Value is completely different from a buyer’s perspective as opposed to a seller’s. If you’re a buyer, high quality at a low price is the definition of a good value. Pianos are hardly exempt from the law of diminishing returns. Past a certain price point, you need to shell out a lot more to get incremental increases in quality, and by definition the “value” of a piano decreases as price increases.
That’s not to say buying an expensive piano is not necessarily a good value. Even “quality” itself, although objective in terms of materials and craftsmanship, is relative to the buyer. What may seem a luxury to a hobby musician may be indispensible to a professional artist, who would be unable to do his or her best work on a lesser instrument. Piano values thus depend in part on who’s buying and playing them.
If you’re selling a piano on the other hand, value refers more to what the piano is “really” worth, its intrinsic value. However, even this isn’t the whole story. A piano’s selling price may not reflect its musical value. This is very good news for anyone in the market for antique pianos, as it’s possible to find the finest musical instruments at sometimes a fraction of the cost of a new piano that may be newer but less beautiful an instrument. But if you’re selling an antique piano, be prepared to sell it at less than its real worth as a musical instrument.
What’s more, piano values are vulnerable to supply and demand, so even “intrinsic” value isn’t so intrinsic after all.
Let’s now consider the most important variables that affect piano values.
All too many people fall into the trap of assuming a piano’s brand has inherent value. I’ve seen many old Steinways in terrible condition, yet many people will naively assume that these are good pianos simply because of the name. They may have been good pianos, but a “has-been” instrument in a state of disrepair won’t do them much good. Yet they’ll end up paying top dollar for a poor instrument, all the while remaining naively enamored of their prized Steinway.
That’s not to say that brand is insignificant. Some companies simply make better products. Assuming the piano has been well-maintained, it’s only natural for them to command a higher market price.
Pianos don’t get better with age, at least not if their selling price is taken as a measure of their value. On average, a new piano loses about fifteen percent of its value after a year, and two-thirds after 25 years.
A piano’s age also tells us little about its actual condition. Similarly, age does not tell us how much the piano was played or how well it was maintained. Pianos do respond to playing, and they respond well to good playing and poorly to bad, heavy-handed playing. A piano does need to be played, the way a car needs to be driven, yet bad playing, as with driving, will put more wear and tear on the instrument.
A new piano will have commensurate labor costs associated with it, and these labor costs will be a function of the country in which the piano was manufactured. Professional pianists value handmade instruments as opposed to machine manufacturing. Piano building is an art after all, and no machines can be considered artists. Manual work is expensive, and these costs are ultimately reflected in the piano’s price.
The soundboard will exert considerable influence on piano values, since to no small extent the soundboard is the instrument. A soundboard will crack in low-humidity conditions, and extensive fluctuations in humidity are bad for a piano’s health. (A piano’s humidity should be about 50 percent.)
Next, the pin block is an important factor in a piano’s value. It is possible to replace the pin block, although it is very time-consuming and very expensive. If the pins are loose, the piano will not hold its tune, and there is little that can be done short of replacing the pin block altogether.
Strings and hammers
Other parts of a piano are replaceable. Old strings and worn hammers can be replaced, with replacing strings the more expensive operation of the two. Note that replacing either will inevitably change the piano’s sound, so consult with experts if you’re looking to preserve or restore an antique piano.
A word of caution
Friends of mine once bought a beautifully restored antique Steinway grand from their children’s piano teacher’s estate. They paid a mere $1200 for it at the estate sale. Later, when their children stopped playing and the piano was taking up too much space in their living room, they decided to sell it… for $1200!
This is a consequence of failing to determine piano value using the methods discussed on this website and elsewhere. My friends could have gotten many times that price had they only gotten the instrument appraised by a professional, or at least looked up historical price information in a blue book of pianos. Incidentally, the buyer was a professional pianist, and he indeed knew to bring along a piano technician before gladly parting with his 1200 dollars. He could barely contain his smile.
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