PART OF RESTORATION AND PRESERVATION”
HOW OLD IS MY PIANO OR ORGAN?
The most frequently asked question we receive is
“How old is my piano?”
Dating an instrument by serial number and brand name
The most accurate way to determine the specific age of your instrument is by cross-referencing the brand name with the serial number. There are a handful of historical publications that can be used to cross-reference brand names with serial numbers in order to determine specific dates of manufacture. While most major manufactures are listed in these archives, some smaller and lesser-known firms may not be listed. Sadly, the history of many obscure firms has been lost over time.
Estimating the general age of an instrument
In cases where a manufacturer is not listed in our archives, we must “guesstimate” the age of an instrument based on the evolution of design and construction. Our experts are generally able to estimate the age of an instrument within a 5 – 10 year period based solely on design and construction.
You may also get a general idea of the age and type of instrument you have by comparing it to the photos and dates listed on the Identify Your Instrument page on this website.
Where to find the brand name and serial number
In most pianos, the brand name and serial number can be found inside the instrument near the soundboard or strings.
- Upright pianos usually have the brand name and serial number located inside the piano, on the back near the top of the strings.
- Grand and square grand pianos usually have the brand name and serial number stamped on the soundboard or plate, as well as stamped on the top of each leg, pedal lyre, etc.
- Organs and melodeons usually have the brand name and serial number stamped inside the cabinet, sometimes on handwritten tags or stickers.
It is important to identify the brand name located inside the instrument on the soundboard or harp. While most instruments have the actual brand name label on the keyboard cover, some instruments have the name of the original retailer or distributor listed on the keyboard cover instead of the actual manufacture’s name. The manufacturer’s label is generally cast into the harp or stamped on the soundboard inside the instrument.
If an instrument has ever been non-professionally stripped or refinished, chances are that the original name label above the keyboard was lost with the old finish (these name labels are replaced when professionally refinished). If the manufacturer’s label is missing from the keyboard cover, it will likely be found inside the instrument on the harp or soundboard.
Once you determine the brand name and serial number of your instrument, email us at firstname.lastname@example.org and we will gladly assist you in determining the age of your instrument. Note that in some case when instruments are more rare or obsolete, we may require photos in order to help establish the age of your instrument.
Note: While searching for your brand name and serial number, you will likely find establishment dates and patent dates inside your instrument. It is important to point out that these are NOT manufacturing dates.
WHAT IS MY ANTIQUE PIANO OR ORGAN WORTH?
Sadly, we see original unrestored antique instruments selling for only a fraction of their potential restored value.
Restoration is not cheap, but it is necessary to make an instrument worth top dollar. For example, consider an antique automobile that has been sitting on blocks, forgotten and unused for decades. Rusting and ruining due to neglect, you wouldn’t expect this old car to fetch a very high price in unusable condition. However, if you invest in having the antique automobile restored to pristine “show-car” condition, you would then expect it to sell for a tidy sum – likely at a nice profit after your investment.
Antique pianos and organs are the same way in the real market. Pristinely restored, fully functional instruments sell for top dollar in the real market while original, unrestored instruments simply do not.
The term “restored” refers to professional interior and exterior restoration and rebuilding, not just cabinet refinishing and internal cleaning. Many people think that all their piano is needs is a simple “tune up” in order to be worth top dollar, not realizing that a simple service call cannot undo a century of abuse and neglect. Others think that because Grandma painted the family piano or organ in the garage 25 years ago that the instrument is “restored” and worth a fortune – not true!
Like an antique automobile, an antique instrument must be painstakingly restored, both functionally and aesthetically, in order to be worth top dollar in the real market.
Over the past decade, we have seen the value of antique pianos and organs nearly double across the board. Much of the credit goes to awareness and education – folks are now able to go to the internet and learn about what they have and are often encouraged to restore and preserve their heirloom instruments.
The best way to get an accurate value for your antique piano or organ is to get an official appraisal. Appraisals are generally done in person by a qualified appraiser, and a valid appraisal will cost money. While we do offer general value information to the general public, we do not offer formal appraisal services for antique instruments we have not restored in our restoration shop.
A good way to get a general sense of what your antique instrument is worth in its current condition is by comparing it to the instruments shown in the value carousel below:
– Please scroll left or right to find your instrument’s proper category –
Circa 1850 – 1880
$400 – $1,200 in poor condition
$2,000 – $8,000 in average to good condition
$16,000 – $25,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1880 – 1900
$300 – $1,100 in poor condition
$1,600 – $6,500 in average to good condition
$15,000 – $22,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1900 – 1915
$200 – $1,000 in poor condition
$1,200 – $4,500 in average to good condition
$14,000 – $20,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1915 – 1930
$100 – $800 in poor condition
$1,000 – $3,000 in average to good condition
$12,000 – $18,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1905 – 1930
$500 – $1,000 in poor condition
$2,000 – $3,000 good, non-functional condition
$3,500 – $6,500 in functional condition
$20,000 – $25,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1850 – 1880
$1,500 – $3,500 in poor condition
$4,000 – $10,000 in average to good original condition
$35,000 – $75,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1880 – 1900
$1,200 – $3,000 in poor condition
$3,500 – $8,000 in average to good original condition
$25,000 – $50,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1900 – 1915
$1,000 – $2,500 in poor condition
$3,000 – $6,000 in average to good original condition
$20,000 – $40,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1915 – 1935
$800 – $1,500 in poor condition
$2,500 – $4,500 in average to good original condition
$18,000 – $28,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
SQUARE GRAND PIANO
Circa 1840 – 1890
$1,000 – $2,500 in poor condition
$3,500 – $6,500 in average to good original condition
$28,000 – $50,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
VICTORIA PUMP ORGAN
Circa 1865 – 1915
$1,000 – $1,500 in poor condition
$2,500 – $4,500 in average to good original condition
$6,500 – $10,000 totally restored to factory-new condition
Circa 1840 – 1875
$800 – $1,500 in poor condition
$2,000 – $4,000 in average to good original condition
$6,500 – $8,500 totally restored to factory-new condition
SPINET & CONSOLE PIANOS
Circa 1930 – 1985
Small spinet & console pianos built after 1930 fall into the “Mid-Century Modern” category. We do not deal with spinet & console style pianos. We suggest you contact your local piano technican for information about them.
IS MY ANTIQUE INSTRUMENT WORTH THE INVESTMENT OF RESTORATION?
Restoration and preservation of an heirloom instrument is generally considered a wise investment.
With the flood of disposable cheap import pianos in today’s market and the exorbitantly high prices of quality new pianos, restoration and preservataion often makes more sense than buying new.
Sure, there are lots of cheap new pianos available everywhere you look, but you need to consider the fact that they are generally poor quality “throw away” pianos that won’t be here long term. Unfortunately, one has to spend a small fortune to get a quality new piano. Restoration of an heirloom instrument will yield much better value for your investment.
Will it cost more to restore my instrument than it will be worth?
How many home renovation or “house-flipping” shows have you seen on TV lately? People everywhere are renovating old homes and buildings so that they can be sold for profit in the end. Much like the real estate industry, restoring a vintage instrument adds real value to the piece, ultimately making the instrument worth more than the cost of restoration in most cases.
Restoration and preservation is an investment.
Like a new car, a new piano will lose value over time. The antique value of an heirloom instrument tends to increase over time, making restoration and preservation a wise investment. Over the past two decades, we have seen the value of heirloom instruments nearly double, a trend that will likely continue long term!
“It seems as if there are two basic mindsets in the piano industry: Those who value their heirloom pianos, and those who think they are junk. It is rare that we encounter those who take much middle-ground on the subject.
I have clients approach me asking, “Is my antique piano worth restoration?” My answer is almost always YES because of what I have seen in the real market over the past several years. Unfortunately, there are a lot of piano tuners and technicians out there who do not believe that heirloom instruments deserve restoration and preservation. Much of this prejudice comes from the fact that many in the piano industry have little (if any) experience with antique instruments and they are afraid of what they do not understand. However, there are also those who love and cherish these heirloom instruments and those who are passionate about restoring and preserving them for future generations.
Being a professional pianist is what got me so involved with piano restoration and preservation. I approach these vintage instruments from a pianist’s point of view first, and from a technical point of view second. I have personally sat down and played Beethoven piano sonatas on a restored pre-Civil War square grand piano. I got chills down my back because of the experience, knowing I was hearing the music the way Beethoven’s audience heard it firsthand. I have played Chopin and Schumann on restored 19th Century upright and grand pianos, the same instruments these masters would have played, and the power and warmth was incredibly moving. I suspect that many new piano dealers have not had the privilege of that experience, hence their prejudice against restoration and preservation. To me, many newer instruments don’t have the “soul” of these heirloom instruments, and they seem almost lifeless and sterile by comparison.
The real market has historically supported antique piano restoration and preservation, and it seems to be a growing trend. As restoration costs steadily increase, values of these antique instruments are steadily increasing as well. How can be that an instrument that cost hundreds of dollars a century ago (the cost of a small house) be worthless today? How can the old-growth wood from America’s virgin forests and the endangered ivory be disposable and tossed aside? One of the costliest single investments of a lifetime, our ancestors would have gone to great sacrifice to own a piano or organ, expecting the instrument to be passed down through generations.
While respecting differing opinions, those who prefer new pianos over restoration are simply not our customers, just as those who are passionate about having an antique instrument restored are not likely to go out and buy a new piano. People who love and appreciate their heirloom instruments are the people who create the very real market for these instruments. People who do not share this love and appreciation will tell you the market doesn’t exist, but our extensive clientele proves otherwise.”
-Michael Stinnett, Founder
Antique Piano Shop, Inc.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY PIANO OR ORGAN IS AN ANTIQUE?
We generally consider an heirloom instrument to be an antique if it was built prior to the Great Depression (circa 1930).
Automobiles are generally considered “classic cars” at 25 years old and “antique cars” at 50 years old. Antique furniture is often required to be at least 100 years old to be considered antique. This classification for musical instruments is a bit vague.
Heirloom pianos & organs are not like most antiques. Unlike an antique table that sits dormant, an heirloom instrument is a complex piece of machinery that must function properly in order to serve it’s purpose. Like automobiles, musical instruments don’t generally adhere to the same classification rules as antique furniture.
Note: Instruments built after 1930 are generally considered “Mid Century Modern”. While not considered actual antiques, they are considered to be vintage pieces.
IS IT TRUE THAT REFINISHING MY ANTIQUE PIANO OR ORGAN WILL RUIN ITS VALUE?
Professional refinishing is almost always necessary for an antique instrument to be worth top dollar.
Most people assume that their heirloom instrument has always looked dark and dull without realizing that there is often rare and beautiful wood hidden underneath the old darkened and deteriorated finish! Refinishing an heirloom instrument is necessary in order to discover the hidden figured-grain Honduran Mahogany or exotic Brazilian Rosewood underneath!
“The family piano was so dark and ugly that Grandma decided to paint it white when I was a little girl”…
Antique pianos and organs were originally finished with thick coats of heavy varnish which chemically breaks down and often turns very dark and scaly over the years. Some of these finishes deteriorate so badly that some instruments with their original finish actually looked charred and burned, even rough to the touch, as if they had been in a fire!
While it is true that some very old and historical furniture is worth more with the original finish intact, these historical furniture pieces were generally finished with shellac or French Polish finishes that stay beautiful for centuries if well cared for. Antique pianos and organs, on the other hand, had primitive varnish finishes that rot and deteriorate over time.
Much like antique an automobile would require a new paint job to be a pristine show car, antique pianos and organs almost always require professional refinishing on order to be worth top dollar.
IF MY PIANO HAS A CRACKED SOUNDBOARD, IS IT RUINED?
Cracked soundboards are commonly encountered. An heirloom instrument with a cracked or separated soundboard is not ruined, it is not worthless.
Clients often tell us that their local piano tuner says their piano has a cracked soundboard and is ruined and worthless. The reality is that nearly all heirloom instruments have cracks and separations in their soundboards – they were designed this way so that the soundboards could move and adapt to changes in heat and humidity.
During the 19th and early 20th Centuries, piano manufacturers were shipping instruments all over the world. In a time before climate control and air conditioning, these instruments would leave their factories and travel to harsh climates of extreme heat and cold as well as excessive dryness and humidity.
It is the nature of wood to shrink and swell with changes in the environment such as humidity, heat and cold. With no way to control extreme environmental conditions 100+ years ago, these heirloom soundboards were brilliantly designed to move with the changes of the environment. In the arid dry winter, a joint in the soundboard would open up and a visible separation would appear. In the humid summer, the separation would close up and disappear as the moisture content of the wood increased.
These heirloom instruments were placed in homes without insulation and were exposed to extremes in temperature. They were subject to severe heat and cold and were often placed near wood stoves in the winter and and open windows in the summer. Despite their hostile environments, these heirloom instruments continued to faithfully perform their duty for a lifetime. Pianos built today require excessive climate control and delicate handling for fear they will go out of tune. An instrument built today would likely not withstand the extreme punishment that these heirloom instruments were forced to endure!
Old Growth Wood
The soundboards in heirloom instruments came from the virgin forests of North America. These trees were growing when the United States and Canada were Native American hunting grounds! These virgin forests were so densely populated with growth that a tree would be forced to grow very slowly as it struggled for sunlight. This “old growth” wood is superior in every respect, especially as it relates to tone quality, yet the modern piano industry considers these vintage soundboards to be disposable and little consideration is given to tossing them aside and replacing them with soundboards made of new green wood.
Note: Most of this “old growth” wood has been harvested and is no longer commercially available with few exceptions and at a very high cost. Fortunately, most surviving “old-growth” forests are protected by the National Park Service today.
“I was told that I should just buy a new piano”…
Sadly, the “cracked soundboard” ploy has generated countless dollars for unscrupulous piano technicians over the years that use it as a scare tactic for financial gain. In fact, this scare tactic is often used by piano dealers to discourage restoration and preservation so that they can sell a new piano to the unsuspecting client. It takes little effort to convince the average person that a crack in the soundboard means an instrument is ruined and worthless so this particular tactic has been immensely successful in selling new pianos.
As discussed in the article below, a crack in a soundboard is not detrimental to tone and is more cosmetic than anything. In fact, the nature of the soft wood a soundboard is made of needs to be able to expand and retract with changes in heat and humidity. This is why so many pianos have separations and “cracks” in the soundboards but still sound good. Almost any piano with a little age on it will likely have soundboard issues which can be corrected and repaired properly.
The article listed below will give you real and accurate information about piano soundboards. This article has been widely used and circulated in the piano industry as a credible resource for accurate information:
“The Soundboard of the Piano”
From an article by Dr. William Braid White,
Chicago School of Pianoforte Technology
-Dr. William Braid White
Note: The soundboard and the harp (plate) are not the same thing. The soundboard is made of wood, and the harp is made of cast-iron painted gold (usually) which holds tension on the strings. A cracked harp is an important issue, but in most cases can be remedied by new technologies in welding and mending.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY PIANO OR ORGAN KEYS ARE REAL IVORY?
Many heirloom instruments were made with genuine ivory keys and ebony sharps.
Ivory and ebony have been the materials of choice on instrument keyboards for centuries. Genuine ivory has the ability to absorb moisture and perspiration from the pianist’s fingers and has the uncanny ability to maintain relatively constant temperature with little fluctuation. Genuine ebony wood is used on piano keyboards because it’s dense, hard constitution makes it virtually impermeable to chips and scratches from fingernails.
Ivory and ebony were used almost exclusively on instrument keyboards during the early to middle 19th Century. In the late 19th Century, early plastics like celluloid started appearing as a lower cost alternative to genuine ivory. Celluloid plastic was marketed as a superior yet less expensive option for piano and organ keyboards, and celluloid keyboards became quite common by the turn-of-the-century period (especially on parlor organs).
Ivory and ebony remained the material of choice throughout the early 20th Century. After the Great Depression, improvements in synthetic materials like plastics and celluloid began to become more prevalent over genuine ivory, mostly because these synthetic materials were less expensive to produce. Ivory and ebony continued to be used in the piano industry until the 1960s’ period, although most piano manufacturers had abandoned ivory for synthetic plastics years before.
Can I get new ivory keys for my piano?
The sale of new ivory banned in most countries. Antique ivory is still available from donor instruments which allows for the restoration of original ivory keyboards. If an original ivory keyboard is too far gone to be restored, new keyboard materials such as faux ivory must be used in restoration.
There are no laws prohibiting the sale of antique instruments with ivory keys within the United States, but the Federal Government does require that ivory on antique instruments be at least 100 years old in order to be legally exported out of the United States to other countries.
How to tell if your keys are ivory
Ivory can always be identified by the hairline separation between the head and the tail of the key. Because of the way ivory was harvested, it was necessary that one piano key be made with two pieces of ivory, not just one. The head of the key is the part that sticks out in front of the black keys, and the tail is the thinner part of the key that is between the black keys. A second way to identify real ivory is that it has a grain-like texture similar to a human fingernail. Often times old ivory will turn yellow with age, but so will some early forms of plastic.
Celluloid was also a very popular keyboard material, and was supposed to be the “keyboard of the future.” Unfortunately, celluloid is very flammable and the slightest cigarette ash will burn an unsightly hole completely through the key top. If your keys have cigarette burns, you most certainly have celluloid keys, not ivory.
IS MY ANTIQUE PIANO OR ORGAN MADE OF SOLID WOOD OR VENEER?
Most antique pianos and organs are made of rare and exotic wood veneers over solid wood.
Veneering over solid wood is actually very expensive and labor intensive to produce. Veneering has always been used in the world’s finest furniture manufacturing; multiple layers of cross-laminated veneer create strength and stabilization against splitting, cracking and warping long term.
Many people seem to think that a piece of furniture that is veneered must be cheaply made and of poor quality. Nothing could be further than the truth! Veneer has been used in the finest furniture making for centuries, and is actually more expensive and labor intensive to produce than solid furniture pieces.
What is veneer?
Veneer is a thin slice of wood glued over the top of a solid piece of wood, usually applied in multiple layers with each layer of woodgrain going in different directions.
Veneer serves two major purposes:
First, it is nearly impossible to get a fancy burl or “ribbon cut” grain from a solid piece of wood. Veneer is cut against the grain of the tree much like a pencil sharpener shaves a pencil, ultimately producing the beautifully detailed wood grain found on most fine furniture.
Second, veneer adds substantial strength and stability against splitting, cracking and warping long term. The core cabinets of heirloom instruments were made of solid wood like oak, poplar, chestnut or maple with several layers of a thick-cut veneer glued over the solid core with the grain running in opposite directions. This cross-lamination kept the solid wood from being prone to shrinkage and warpage, and increased the strength of the overall cabinet.
I’VE ALWAYS HEARD THAT MY UPRIGHT PIANO WAS REALLY AN “UPRIGHT GRAND” OR “CABINET GRAND.” WHAT DOES THAT MEAN?
Large full-size upright pianos built before the Great Depression have longer strings and bigger soundboards than baby grand pianos.
A large, full-size upright piano has longer strings and a larger soundboard than a baby grand piano. For example, if a baby grand piano is 5 feet long, at least 12 inches of that length is going to be the keyboard before the strings and soundboard begin. Therefore, a 5-foot-long baby grand piano has the string length of a 48-inch console piano, and a 58″ upright has the string length of a full grand piano nearly 6 feet long!
Large upright pianos often had the volume and tone quality of full size grand pianos. Manufacturers would often label their full-size upright pianos with names like “Upright Grand”, “Cabinet Grand,” and “Concert Grand Upright” among others. Technically, these instruments are still upright pianos, not grand pianos. Upright pianos are always strung vertically, top to bottom, and grand pianos are strung horizontally, front to back.
CAN MY ANTIQUE PIANO BE TUNED TO MODERN CONCERT PITCH?
A properly restored heirloom instrument can usually be tuned to today’s standard concert pitch.
In the early 20th century and before, there was no real recognition of “standard pitch.” Standard pitch means that a note on the scale sounds exactly the same across the board with no variance whatsoever. Right around 1926, Universal Standard Pitch was adopted as A-440, meaning that the A above middle C on the piano keyboard vibrated at 440 HZ. All piano built after 1926 (and many before) were all designed to be tuned to today’s modern pitch of A-440.
Since many pianos built prior to 1926 were not designed with the A-440 standard pitch in mind, many clients ask us if their antique piano can be tuned to today’s standard A-440. In order to be tuned to this modern pitch, the strings must be pulled tighter, increasing the tension on the frame of the piano.
An heirloom piano can usually be tuned to modern concert pitch as long as it has been properly restored. In fact, many antique pianos are built so much heavier and more durable than delicate new pianos that they can often take the extra stress of the tighter strings better than new pianos! It is important, however, to realize that 100-year-old strings and felts will have to be restored and replaced in order for the piano to be expected to hold tune.
Note: Some earlier historical instruments, including most early and mid-19th century square grand pianos, were designed to be tuned at a lower pitch and may not be built to withstand the extra tension.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD MY ANTIQUE PIANO BE TUNED?
Most manufacturers suggest that pianos be tuned every six months at the change of seasons. Pianos built today are a bit delicate compared to pianos built 100 years ago, and are often more sensitive to changes in heat and humidity. Most people let their piano go a year or two without being tuned, claiming it sounds just fine, while others swear by the six-month rule.
In our antique ephemera collection, we see countless testimonials from clients 100+ years ago talking about how their piano was shipped from New York City to the wilderness of the midwest by horse and buggy, only to arrive in perfect tune! Pianos back then didn’t have the luxury of central heating and air conditioning, and they were usually exposed to the harshest of elements like frigid winters by a wood stove and sweltering summers in open windows with direct sunlight.
SHOULD MY UPRIGHT PIANO BE KEPT ON AN INSIDE WALL?
It is generally safe to place your piano on an outside wall in a well insulated home.
It’s true that an outside wall was not the best choice for a piano 100 years ago when houses had little or no insulation. In those days, walls were not sealed from the outside elements. Somehow, now in the 21st century, the idea that an outside wall is a bad place for a piano has still managed to be a popular misconception!
Today, most homes are well-insulated and have central heat and air conditioning. As long as your piano isn’t exposed to moving air, heat or humidity, a well-sealed outside wall should be safe for your piano. Always avoid contact with direct sunlight, heat registers, fireplaces, radiators, air conditioning vents, etc. The more stable the environment, the longer your piano will give good service.
HOW DO I KNOW IF MY ANTIQUE PIANO OR ORGAN ORIGINALLY CAME WITH A STOOL OR A BENCH?
Most 19th Century instruments had stools, not benches. Benches did not become popular until the 20th Century.
During the 19th century and turn-of-the-century era, the women of the family were often the pianists – and consider what they wore. Fashion of that era consisted of anything from hoop skirts to bustles and corsets, long flowing skirts and heavy tapestry.
Imagine a Civil War era Southern belle sitting on a bench and her hoop skirt flipping up over her head! It would have been impossible for the Victorian lady to sit on a bench without seriously compromising her modesty.
The piano and organ stools of the Victorian era were means by which an elegant lady could “perch” with her crinoline draped unspoiled while she sat at the keyboard.
In the early 20th century, as fashion trends changed and less restrictive garments like pants came into fashion, the piano bench began to become popular for its more utilitarian use. By the ‘teens and early ‘twenties, most instruments were sold with benches than stools.