APPRAISALS & REPORTS
(Updated December 2013)
HISTORY, NOT VALUATION!
Our computer, and card and paper files are here to help you, and an email costs you nothing, but nobody can guess the value or condition of a piano without being on the spot to inspect it and tune it. In Britain, as in America, there are legal requirements for anyone who supplies written valuations, we are not licensed valuers, and in years of trying, we have been unable to find one that will work without on-the-spot inspection.
“I’ve got a Ford, what’s it worth?”
Nobody can guess the value or condition of a piano without tuning it, because if the tuning pins are getting loose, it could cost over a thousand pounds to fix, but it is fair to say that unrestored Victorian pianos rarely fetch as much as ninety pounds at auctions here in Britain, indeed many do not reach ten pounds, and we are offered several each year for nothing, just to rescue them from destruction.
The preloved pianos website offers an amusing list showing what they would pay for a piano, basically reducing from £300 if it is late 1900s, down to little or nothing before 1920. Our needs are virtually a mirror image of that, we pay progressively more for anything pre-1900, depending on transport costs.
Even if we had the funding for full-time staff, it would not be practical, worthwhile or cost-effective to put the whole of our archive online or in book form, it would amount to thousands of pages, but what we often do is to print bespoke booklets on sections of it, covering specific names, historical or practical subjects related to a particular piano. Prices usually fall between 5 pounds and 70 pounds, but a more typical price for a full researched report on an antique piano would be twenty-three pounds. However, our new, improved website means that very often, the sort of general information you need is already here, hoping for donations.
PLEASE NOTE: We cannot guarantee publishing dates for these booklets,
it takes several weeks of research, editing and compilation.
If we cannot find specific information on our files, and the general information in our pages here don’t help, we can compile a full, researched, printed report on an antique piano based on piano photos. This will usually contain whatever can be deduced about the age and specification of your piano, combined with information we have on file about the maker. However, do not pay until we have inspected the photos and quoted. We especially need photos of the WHOLE piano, so we know what it looks like! Imagine asking someone about a car, and only showing a photo of the engine!
In the absence of viewing on the spot, it is still possible to learn a lot from photos of the whole piano (unobscured by dogs, stools, vases, etc.) and interior views above and below keyboard level. (I love dogs, but they do have a habit of getting in on the act, and some of the photos we receive are like a portrait of a dog with a piano in the background!) For help with this, see our Date-marks page.
Please do not insert photos into a document or pdf, this makes them difficult to examine, enlarge and enhance, so just send simple images. If you use a Mac or iPad, please try to give each image a different filename, otherwise our PC gets an inferiority complex, and cannot separate a batch of images that are all called “image.jpeg”.
From time to time, I quote piano dates which are quite intuitive guesstimates, based on half a century of experience, and on comparisons with over thirty thousand images we have on file. These guesstimates do not respond to logic or hard evidence, but they are often more accurate than they should logically be, and I can honestly say that with very few exceptions, when later evidence is available, it usually proves them to be very close to the truth, for example one I placed at 1860 was actually 1861. That’s an error of less than 1%, one year in 140. Another estimate – 1801 – was spot on!
We bought this interesting little cottage piano at a local auction, the maker Joseph Shaw was unknown to me, but I guessed at the date 1851. I found Shaw in our lists, and the logical estimate from that information was 1851. The action was made by T.& H. Brooks, and the logical estimate for that was also 1851. No precise evidence yet.
Usually, our booklets act rather like a surveyor’s report on a house, they look at details of the design of a piano, and what they can tell us about its history. By comparing photos with thousands of images we have on file, it is often possible to supply useful and interesting information. Sometimes, this is simply a matter of demonstrating that, for example, having two pedals, or 85 notes, or a music desk that folds out from the top, is not unusual or rare, but perfectly normal. More often, there will be points about the design that tell us things that most people do not know, including clues to the likely age of an antique piano. An important part of our work is in identifying characteristics that help to define dates.
Because of the huge range of content, it is not possible to produce a fixed pricelist. Also, because new information is trickling in all the time, booklets are likely to change, so please let us know what sort of information you want, and we will be pleased to supply an up-to-date quote for printing your requirements.
One important aspect of the report is to try to establish or estimate the date of manufacture, and one of the ways of doing this is by looking at subtle changes in the company’s name, or addresses.
History is not just about kings and queens, and piano history needs to deal with the ordinary everyday pianos, not just exotic ones, but It’s odd that whereas people will often get excited about a Victorian table, most museums routinely turn away Victorian pianos, so it falls to us to try to rescue them from the refuse collection or the bonfire. Even when museums have antique pianos, they rarely have any information about the instruments, and tend to direct enquiries to us. Without funding, all this cannot continue indefinitely.
I have an 1898 Maratea mandolin. What’s it worth? Valuation is impossible without on-the-spot inspection. I just don't understand why anyone would ever write anywhere to ask the value of their piano: perhaps it's all these TV programmes like “Antiques Roadshow”, which give the impression that an object can be given a fixed value. Maybe it's more understandable if an object is simple and decorative, but with something as complex, mechanical and WOODEN as a piano, there is so much that can go wrong, it is impossible to assess its condition purely on the basis of descriptions or photos. Most of all, the wrestpins (tuning pins) must be torque-tested, because replacing these will usually cost more than an old piano is worth.
Not only that, local variables are an issue, and what applies here in Norfolk wouldn't apply in London, much less the USA or Australia. It was, for many years, a useful benchmark here in East Anglia that if an old piano stood up without falling over, someone would probably pay £200 for it, but not £201! Pianos were almost always mass-produced on a production line, so unless the individual instrument has exceptional artwork, or special technical or decorative features, in spite of marquetry, inlaid work, fancy fittings etc., it will probably have been one of hundreds or thousands rolling off the factory line. In that case, the age becomes an important factor: Antiques are usually defined as being over a hundred years old, but this brings us into the Edwardian and Victorian eras, and most museums and serious collectors are up to their ears in that sort of piano, so it's usually the pre-Victorian ones that have most rarity value. On the other hand, ordinary piano dealers don't want to know about anything as old as an antique, they need it to be a tuneable, functional instrument with a good tone and touch, a combination rarely found in antiques. So there is often this great Victorian void between what a dealer wants to sell, and what a collector wants to buy.
Car salesmen have a mythical reputation for prevarication, but this pales into insignificance by comparison with some of the whoppers that I have heard of - and even overheard - from a certain minority of piano salesmen! There seems to be a need to present every secondhand instrument as if it has some unique value, whether it was supposed to have "come off the Queen Mary", or “It was specially made for an exhibition", etc. etc.. Some tuners, too, are guilty of prevarication (if not downright deceit) and seem to have a desperate need to show off their supposed knowledge by telling everyone that their piano is unique!
“When my gran bought it the man at the shop said that only 3 were ever made and he had only got this one by chance.” I had a call about a Berry upright with electric sconces, "there are apparently only four in existence" – unless they check every house in the world, how would anyone know? I used to work for Berrys, and have tuned lots with electric sconces, there was even one down my street, 135 miles from London! Beware of anyone who tells you that only so-many exist.
Junk dealers who like to think they know antiques have often never seen a real antique piano. I've watched the pound signs glow in their eyes as they are frantically looking through their antiques guides, dreaming of "The Big Find", when the truth is that the piano is not that exciting! All too often, when people contact me to ask for further information, it transpires that their instrument is nothing more than an average mass-produced production-line model. The fact that, for example, there are "only 85 notes" or "only 2 pedals", the key coverings are tropicalised, or the marquetry is well done, is not of any major importance, nor does it make the piano rare or valuable, and it often falls to me to let people down as lightly and politely as I can, without perpetuating the myth.
If your tuner tells you that you have a unique and valuable instrument, ask him to put his money where his mouth is! Mind you, a lot of folks are surprisingly deaf to words they don't choose to hear. The same kind of thing happens frequently when a certain book says that a certain serial number makes a piano very old, and people are very good at choosing the number that makes their piano most interesting!
Most of the more unusual and interesting pianos I come across have little monetary value, and are only exciting from a historical or technical point of view, worthy of a place in a museum, but not valuable. A piano which was made during or after the time of Queen Victoria is unlikely to have great antique value unless it is by a famous maker, or has elaborate artwork, or is obviously unusual.
"Dear Bill, thanks for the booklet which arrived yesterday. It looks rather exciting and I look forward to reading it over the holiday."
"Bill, thank you for responding with the great information you have so far."
"I was most interested to read the Windsor accounts, the descriptions of the pianos sold to the Royal household and the continued connection for tuning, repair etc."
"Thank you very much for the information you provided and your speedy response!"
“Thank you for the information that you have found so far on my Benedict piano. ~~~~~~ You obviously have extreme knowledge in this area. ~~~~ Thank you again."
"Many thanks for your information on the Henry Tolkien piano firm. I would certainly like your notes, so have enclosed a cheque. Although no expert at using the internet, I thought your website was really well-produced and interesting."
"Our postie did his job this morning, and there was your booklet - wonderful."
"Thank you so much for this speedy response - I was amazed!"
"I have just browsed through it over breakfast, and must congratulate you on the presentation and contents."
"About 25 years ago I employed a genealogist in London who sent me some of these addresses, though he was nowhere near as thorough as you."
"The adverts and comments about Henry Tolkien's pianos are interesting, even to a non-player like me."
"Your booklet arrived safely this morning. It's fascinating."
"Hello Bill, Sorry for the delay on this but I wanted to thank you for the booklet on Stodart pianos. It's more thorough than I could have imagined and I'm sure my Dad will be fascinated by it all. He even gets a mention... even if it's only as someone who doesn't like to type! I know he's aware of your site but I don't know if he's ever been in touch with you. He's always keen to know more about the family pianos and he may even have something to contribute to your research. Sadly he's hampered by a lack of a reliable internet connection and some family dramas at the moment, but I'll suggest he drops you a line if he has anything to add. Regards, Fay Stodart"
"Thank you for responding so quickly, your site was the only answer I have received, Thank you!"
"I would like to say that I am delighted to find your site on Pianoforte makers, there seem to be plenty of sites for broom makers and carmen, but after all where would our ancestors have been without the pianoforte makers / tuners? - Many thanks!"
"Many thanks for the information about the Stodart piano business. I had not realised how innovative the Stodarts were in piano making. I have contact with a few researchers of the Stodarts in America, and I will pass your details on to them. Jan Squire CPA JP"
"I would like to say what a great site you have developed"
"Bill did a great job in bringing us together."
"You are wonderful, thank you so much for this data. It is very kind of you to do so."
"Dear Bill, Thank you so much for writing. I have been trying for many years to find more information about my maternal great-great-grandfather."
"Thank you very much for your suggestions and assistance."
"Thank you for your response regarding the entry in your database."
"Thank you very much for the comprehensive information."
"What an interesting site you have produced."
"Thank you very much for your prompt and interesting reply about my piano."
"Thank you for your prompt reply"
"Hi! Many many thanks for this information."
"I sure do thank you a lot for what you have found so far."
"Many thanks for your information on the Henry Tolkien piano firm."
"I thought your website was really well-produced and interesting."
"Thank you for such a prompt and informative response."
"As you say, it's a long business collecting information and I am most grateful to you for sharing your finds."
"Thank you for your very informative site."
"Thank you for responding so quickly, your site was the only answer I have received."
"Thank you for those details - I am interested in it ALL!! Thank you! The information is not only interesting but also informative."
"Thank you so much for the information regarding the Moutries as piano makers. What a fascinating website."
Louis Barfe, music historian, says "I trundle along frequently to jam sessions with Bill Kibby-Johnson, my endlessly versatile ex-neighbour. When not playing any one of a thousand instruments, Bill is an authority on the history of piano making, as can be seen from his website."
Without donations, I will be fine, but the Piano History Centre may not survive. If the information on this website helps you, and you cannot afford to make a donation, perhaps you can help us by looking out for any kind of paperwork or information about pianos, such as ads, articles, books, booklets, catalogues, diagrams, directory listings, exhibition catalogues, guarantees, letterheads, music with piano ads on it, newspaper ads, pamphlets, photos, pictures, posters, pricelists, receipts, record sleeves, trade cards, warranties, etc.. We quite understand that people don’t always want to part with originals, but good colour copies or scans can sometimes provide irreplaceable information.