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March 30, 2010

Knowing the Score

The key considerations involved in purchasing a fine piano.

When Philip Calabrese, a high-end piano buyer's agent and piano technician in New York, assists his clients in purchasing an instrument, he employs what he refers to as piano therapy. "I always find that their entire psyche is tied up in the decision," Calabrese explains. "This is the dark secret of the piano world. Will their children turn out to be great pianists? Is their level of musicality really high enough that they deserve to have a Bechstein or a Fazioli or a Steinway? These same people usually already have a Mercedes, so it's not the money."

Whatever your reasons for purchasing a piano, when you sit down and compare the top-quality instruments to the rest of the field, there's really no question: From superlative sound to long-term value to just looking good in a living room, high-end pianos far outperform the others. But even with the best pianos there are some important variables that can make the difference between making a sound investment and playing your luck. Here's the inside scoop on buying top pianos, both new and vintage.

 

Think Grand

In the fields of piano building and buying, experts engage in endless debate about which design and materials will make the piano's 5,000 to 8,000 parts perform best. Yet there is one rule on which they all agree without hesitation: If you want the best instrument possible, buy a grand piano. When grands are compared for performance to upright (or vertical) pianos of the same caliber and condition, grands always win. "The grand will absolutely perform better, there's no doubt about it," says Thomas Goudy, a Wisconsin-based piano technician. Frank Mazurco, executive vice president of Steinway & Sons in New York, agrees. "You would buy a vertical piano over a grand only when space is really at a premium," he says. Jim Nicoll, president of Premier Piano, the U.S. distributor of Bechstein, one of the top brands, also concurs: "If you compare high-end grands and uprights of the same level, you're always going to get more sound out of a grand. Because it has a larger soundboard and you can open the lid much more." (Note: "upright grands" and "cabinet grands" are antiquated terms for vertical pianos.)

The buzzword in the piano industry is "compromise," and it is used profusely in reference to upright pianos. Larry Fine, a piano technician and author of The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano (Brookside Press), remarks that "verticals are compromises in many ways." This is true partly because their internal mechanisms work differently—particularly the hammers, felt-covered wooden mallets that make up part of what's called the "action," a composite of levers and hammers which causes the strings to vibrate, creating sound. (The sound is then amplified by the soundboard, a large, thin piece of wood glued to the inside of the piano's perimeter.) "The grand will always perform better," Calabrese explains, "because in order to get the hammer to drop back into striking position, the action relies on gravity; in an upright piano, springs are used. The former is the proper design, the latter is always a compromise."

But there's another reason why grand pianos perform better than uprights: The horizontal construction of a grand allows the tone to be dispersed about the room more evenly, which translates into more pleasing tonal development, as well as greater musical control. Larger grands can also accommodate longer bass strings and a larger soundboard than larger verticals. "Grand pianos have a greater capacity for expressing nuances of tone and volume," mentions Fine. "The tone develops in a more natural way, and the sound goes out into the room rather than in your face. Most people will hear the difference. Comparatively speaking, a grand sounds better." (The best vertical, by some accounts, is the 52-inch Model 8a by German manufacturer Bechstein.)

Mazurco says that, in the case of Steinway's largest upright piano, string length and soundboard size aren't an issue. "The Steinway K-52 vertical piano is fifty-two inches tall," he says. "It has the same size string length and soundboard area as our medium grand piano. It costs $20,000, and the sound is excellent. But all things considered, a grand will always perform better than a vertical, because the grand is designed to project the sound out into the room."

According to some, grand pianos also allow you to repeat notes with more consistency. Whether you can repeat them more quickly on a grand than an upright, however, is a matter of debate. "Some uprights will repeat as quickly as grands, but none can repeat as reliably," says Fine. "Uprights are more likely to skip." Comments Goudy: "You can definitely repeat notes faster on a grand piano than a vertical. That doesn't mean most people can't do well by a good vertical piano. But you can't take a vertical out for a concert artist to play Rachmaninoff on. It won't work—the artist will be able to outplay it." Calabrese agrees. "You can get a wider range of pianissimo and fortissimo in a grand because you can repeat notes faster," he explains. "It's not just because of the size but also the design of the parts. You can also control the tone better in a grand."

Then there is price: The cost of a grand piano is generally two to three times the cost of a vertical at a comparable level. (The average price for a high-end, medium-sized grand without custom-built cabinetry is approximately $35,000 to $60,000.) Grand pianos also require a lot more floor space.The smallest one, the baby grand, can be as short as 4.5 to 5.5 feet long; next, there is the medium grand, at 5.5 to 7.5 feet; and then the concert grand, at 7.5 to nine feet or more. (The largest grand is ten feet two inches, made by top Italian manufacturer Fazioli.) And, of course, that doesn't include the floor space needed for the bench, which adds about another two feet.

The vertical piano was invented around 1800, a hundred years after Bartolomeo Cristofori built the first piano. All vertical pianos, regardless of size, occupy approximately the same amount of floor space; what changes is their height. There are four categories of verticals, measured in inches from the floor to the top of the instrument: spinet (36 to 39 inches), console (40 to 44 inches), studio (45 to 47 inches), and full-size (48 to 60 inches).

 

The Bigger, The Better

The other rule on which experts concur: Purchase the largest piano you can afford. Because larger pianos have longer strings, they can produce more resonant bass and tenor tones. And because, as Fine says, their soundboards are larger, "it's more likely you will have more volume of sound. Of course it also depends on the room's acoustics."

Here's how it works in terms of string length. All pianos have to produce the same frequencies, whether it's a 36-inch-high spinet or a nine-foot-long concert grand. To do so, steel piano strings of varying gauges are pulled at different degrees of tension. For higher notes, thinner (or lighter-gauge) and shorter strings are used. As the notes get lower, strings become longer and thicker—until there's no more room in the case. To compensate, their thickness must be increased. The problem is that strings can only get so thick before they begin to produce excessive inharmonicity, or distorted harmonics (overtones). "Smaller pianos have strings that are thicker in proportion to their length," says Fine. "They're less flexible and don't vibrate in as mathematically true a way; the frequency of the harmonics is distorted. Larger pianos also have these discrepancies, but to a much smaller extent."

The question then is: How small should you go? Most agree that the smallest grand worth buying is five feet long. "But even five to five-and-a-half feet is a compromise," comments Fine. "Above that it becomes a much more serious instrument." According to Goudy, "In the past, old European companies considered six-foot grand pianos very small. Today we are making pianos that start at four feet six inches. It's not until you get into the six-foot range that the scale designer really begins to have something to work with."

"With the baby grand, you reduce the piano's performance exponentially," says Calabrese. "Six-foot pianos or longer have little or no inharmonicity. Uprights are by definition loaded with it. I spend a lot of time with people trying to choose between a five-foot-one-inch Steinway and a five-foot-seven-inch one. To me the choice is quite clear—go for the five-foot-seven piano. All things being equal, you want the biggest piano you can afford for price and space. What makes a Steinway really superior tends not to be found in the five-foot-one-inch model."

Experts also say that if you're going to buy a vertical, you should consider only the full-size or studio models. "The smallest acceptable vertical is forty-six inches," says Goudy. "Even console verticals are really made for the decorator. I am not saying that they are inadequate, but I don't recommend them. Of course any vertical is already a compromise on a grand." Says Calabrese: "You can still have a nice result from a vertical that is forty-three inches tall. But preferably it should be at least forty-six inches." Says Nicoll: "For really good quality sound in a vertical piano, you are looking for at least forty-six inches, and forty-eight would be much more desirable. A couple of inches of height can make a big difference."

As for spinets, "A spinet is almost always a poor choice because it's so small, and it's a compromise on size that really doesn't need to be made," says Calabrese. "Some spinets are virtually impossible to tune and repair. I don't work on spinets ever; I decline." Nicoll agrees. "I don't even think anybody makes a spinet anymore," he says. "They were a decorator's delight when they first came into being. But they were so limited in terms of what kind of sound you could get out of them."

That's not to say that it's better to get a huge vertical piano than a small grand. "If it's between a top-quality baby grand and a top-quality upright, the grand's action will always be better," says Calabrese. "But it's seldom that you'll ever have to make that comparison, since an upright tends to be a compromise made when there is less space. In this case it's not even a matter of price, because the upright and the baby grand may cost about the same."

On the flip side, does that mean that to get the best value for your money you should run out and buy a nine-foot concert grand? "I think that in a six-foot-long piano you can get about ninety percent of everything that is possible in a grand piano," says Calabrese. "So if you want to go to the nine-foot level, remember that you're only adding another ten percent in performance. If you are a concert artist and you're going to be playing in front of two thousand people, then you do need that extra ten percent. But most people can get what they want out of a medium grand."

In the case of Steinway, Mazurco says that even the smallest Steinway grand delivers the same high-quality performance as the largest; what change are its volume and sound. "They're all made with Steinway designs, the same quality materials, the same workmanship," he states, "and it takes one year to make each of them. In general, however, the larger the piano, the fuller and bigger the sound."

 

Longevity is Relative

Whether you plan to gallop through Rachmaninoff or linger over Schubert, the fact remains that not all pianos capable of making beautiful music are worth purchasing as investments. "If you look at all pianos from sixty years ago, you'll find that nineteen out of twenty of them today are virtually worthless," comments Calabrese. "It's also quite likely that the same will be the case in the future for pianos that are bought today. That's not to say a piano can't be an excellent investment; it can. But it is very important to be particularly choosy about what you buy."

Thomas Rourk, a piano rebuilder in Massachusetts and former head technician at Mason & Hamlin, agrees. "For a piano to be worth something in the future it means that the design, craftsmanship, and selection of materials have been made without compromise. Ninety-eight percent or more of the pianos manufactured these days are produced as consumer items, without a lot of longevity built in. Only the highest-end pianos will be viable and valuable instruments one hundred years from now. Of course that also depends on the circumstances in which they're placed during their lifetime."

The quality range of pianos is as vast as that of automobiles. In lower-end pianos, wood can crack and warp, legs can break off, and drill holes in which tuning pins sit can be stripped to the point that even the best technicians are helpless. At the upper end of the range, where grand pianos with the simplest ebonized finishes cost anywhere from $37,000 to more than $150,000, the wood, hardware, workmanship, and scale design—that is, the relationship between string lengths, bridges, hammers, and the soundboard, which amplifies the sound—are superb. "The formula of the scale design is very important," says Rourk. "A lot of the less expensive pianos on the market are formed from the case on in, because the manufacturers are trying first to make them look attractive and are then fitting the instrument inside."

According to the expert piano technicians, rebuilders, dealers, and manufacturers with whom we spoke, one of the key variables in a piano's value is whether it will be worth restoring when it needs it—a step that is inevitable with even the best brands. "All pianos have a natural life span of sixty to eighty years at the most," Calabrese explains, "after which they have to be restored. That's not to say that without restoration their keys won't go down or they won't make sound; they may, but they often won't make music. A piece of fine French furniture originating in the eighteenth centurythat has not been monkeyed with has a certain value whether or not you can still use it for its original purpose. But if a piano cannot perform, its value is extremely compromised, no matter how beautiful the exterior." Says Fine: "The life span of a piano is an indeterminate thing. If it's exposed to a hostile climate or is played relentlessly, it could meet a very early death. But once it stops working correctly, it either has to be restored or junked."

Restoring a piano costs the same—usually $10,000 to $20,000—whether or not it is top quality, and that's another reason why it's worth buying the best piano you can afford. "If you're going to spend $20,000 restoring a piano," Calabrese explains, "you have to make sure you've added $20,000 to the value. That is, you want to be sure that your $10,000 piano has great potential so that it will be worth at least $30,000 at the end. This is completely misunderstood by most customers."

Even the mythic Steinway, considered the best investment of all, requires restoration at some point. "As in any piano, you have about two hundred strings exerting forty thousand pounds of pressure on the piano's plate," says Mazurco. "These strings travel across bridges that are exerting nearly one thousand pounds of pressure on the soundboard. After fifty to sixty years, the soundboard can flatten out. The majority of the Steinways we're restoring now are from the 1920s and 30s." (According to Mazurco, Steinway's Restoration Center in New York is the largest such facility in the world.)

Some experts assert that buying a vintage piano and having it rebuilt is a good way to save money—and possibly even get better quality than you would in a brand-new one. "Vintage pianos can be better investments," advises Rourk. "At the moment, one of the more popular new pianos is a Steinway B. It is priced in the mid-fifties. You can still pick up a very good quality, turn-of-the-century Steinway B for $10,000 or slightly more. Topnotch rebuilding will cost you no more than $20,000. So altogether you've spent about $30,000 acquiring an instrument that is, in my opinion, superior to a new Steinway."

Even after it has been restored, however, you shouldnot count on the value of a high-end piano increasing dramatically with age. "A twenty-five-year-old or fifty-year-old Steinway sells for eighty-five percent of the price of a new Steinway," says Mazurco, "and we've never crafted a piano that depreciated." As Fine says, "A piano cannot be compared to an automobile, which in sixty years will probably be worth nothing. Pianos are a sounder investment than many other things. But you generally won't get a return on your investment." He adds, however, that there are "rare occasions in which a piano's value goes up a lot—for instance, when you find a rare piano at a rock-bottom price, or when you find one that has a one-of-a-kind art case or that a museum may later want to acquire."

That's true of the Steinway grand piano from 1883 whose art case was decorated by English artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It sold for $390,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 1980. When it went on auction again in 1997 at Christie's, it sold for $1.2 million. "It has hand-painting and marquetry of inlaid wood and mother-of-pearl," says Mazurco. "It's absolutely beautiful."

 

Top Of The Scale

"The biggest difference between top pianos and lesser ones," says Fine, "is in performance and longevity. Top pianos also last somewhat longer before they need to be restored." Much of that performance has to do with design. "It is intelligent scale design that makes a truly good piano," says Goudy. "At its foundation is a mathematical formula. Depending upon what you do with that formula, the piano can become like a paint-by-numbers picture or a Rembrandt. Chinese manufacturers use the same piano strings that the Germans do—only with far different results. It's that they generally don't have a great design. That's the number-one problem with most of the piano manufacturers that don't achieve success. The mathematical formulas that they come up with fail to work."

Because high-quality workmanship, materials, and design are a given in high-end pianos, what you are looking for most at this level is a sound that appeals to you, as it varies from brand to brand. "There's usually a difference between the sound of European and American pianos," says Nicoll. "The European sound is more romantic, more dramatic in overall quality. The American sound is more forceful and strong but without the shading that we get from European pianos. Probably the average amateur pianist wouldn't notice much difference. But as the pianist progresses to a high level of playing, it becomes more evident."

Another asset to look for, from an investment standpoint, is a piano's resale factor. That's where Steinway enjoys a huge lead over the others. "There's a big market for restored Steinways," says Fine. "The reseller's market for the high-end European brands isn't as large because fewer people are familiar with them." Says Calabrese: "It will absolutely be more difficult to resell, say, a Fazioli than a Steinway. My contention is—and I'm not alone in this—that the universe of buyers in this country for foreign brands is much smaller than the universe of buyers for Steinway." Even Steven Witkowski, president of International Brokers, the North American distributor of Fazioli, concurs. "There's no doubt that you can resell a Steinway more easily because everyone's heard of it," he says. "But then I have yet to come across anyone wanting to resell a Fazioli."

There is also the issue of price. Generally, high-end European brands are more expensive. For instance, a new polished-ebony (i.e. ebonized, or stained black in imitation of ebony), six-foot-eleven-inch Fazioli grand costs $89,500; a new New York Steinway grand measuring six feet ten and a half inches costs $54,900. For many the choice is simply a matter of personal preference. "People buy Faziolis," according to Fine, "because they like the touch and the tone of a Fazioli best."

Finally, to "audition" the entire catalog of pianos of any top foreign brand, you really have to fly overseas. "Because of their incredibly high cost it's very difficult for a dealer to keep enough inventory in the showroom for you to make a selection," Calabrese explains. "They usually have one representative piano to whet your appetite. If you really want to choose among several, you would go to the source abroad." Says Nicoll: "The ideal thing would be to hear all the pianos from these top manufacturers before you make your decision. The unfortunate part is that you never get to hear them all side by side, because music stores will not keep more than two or three top-line pianos on their floor."

On the following pages we've described the new pianos that experts with whom we spoke consider the absolute best. In addition to the brands listed, other brands often cited as having very good if not excellent quality for home use include Yamaha (primarily for jazz) and the German-made Blüthner. Another is Mason & Hamlin, the only American piano manufacturer other than Steinway that experts consistently named and whose pianos, they say, have a warm, deep, clear tone. "The history of Mason & Hamlin is a love story," remarks Calabrese. "It's gone up and down many times over, but their pianos have always been considered top-flight. Currently they're making almost two hundred pianos a year—and doing an excellent job of it. In my opinion they're right back up there, competing with Steinway. It's not a big competition, but it is an interesting choice. They're using all Renner action parts from Germany and the same white-spruce soundboard materials that are found in a Hamburg Steinway. They're not trying to be a New York Steinway knockoff at all."

 

Steinway & Sons:

"If you compare the best new pianos, a Steinway will win eight out of ten times," says Calabrese. "Essentially it's the best-designed piano in the world. There are others that are equal in quality, but none that are superior. That's true of vintage Steinway pianos as well. Virtually all of them have the potential to become the zenith of what a piano can be. It is no accident that ninety percent, if not more, of the world's performing concert pianists choose to perform on a Steinway." (According to Mazurco, last year 98 percent of the world's classical pianists showed a preference for Steinway, and that number has never dropped below 90 percent.)

The Steinway empire, founded in 1853, is divided between Steinway U.S., which is based in New York (it produces 2,500 grand pianos and 600 to 700 verticals annually), and Steinway Germany, based in Hamburg. Since the company went public in 1997—its New York Stock Exchange symbol is LVB, short for Ludwig van Beethoven—it has introduced a new art-case collection, which includes elaborate exterior decoration from its archives of classic-era designs (generally pianos made between 1880 and 1930) as well as new ones. Steinway grand pianos with basic wood and ebonized finishes range from $31,000 for a baby grand to about $80,000 for the largest concert grand, a nine-foot Model D; the verticals range from $14,500 to $20,000. Grands with exotic finishes cost much more.

Most experts concur that New York and Hamburg Steinways produce distinctly different sounds. "The New York Steinway has always been recognized as an instrument of power; the Hamburg Steinway as an instrument of finesse," says Calabrese. "In unscientific terms, if we are talking about a nine-foot concert Steinway and all things are equal, the New York Steinway tends to be bold; the Hamburg Steinway is a little more subtle. It's not that the New York Steinway isn't capable of the subtleties or is brash, it's just that it's easier to coax the subtleties out of a Hamburg Steinway. But then these are not qualitative differences. Both a New York and a Hamburg Steinway are potentially superb instruments. They're just built differently."

"They produce different sounds," Mazurco agrees. "The New York Steinways tend to have a bigger, richer, fuller sound. The Hamburg Steinways can be characterized more by brilliance, brightness, and clarity of sound. You can play any literature on any Steinway, but if you give Rachmaninoff to concert artists, nine times out of ten they will choose a New York Steinway. If you give the artists Mozart, they may choose the Hamburg Steinway."

According to Mazurco, the internal designs are identical in New York and Hamburg Steinways, as are the processes used to create the instruments. The rims are also made of the same Vermont maple and the soundboards of Sitka spruce. The difference is in the protective finishes applied to the exteriors (New York Steinways are finished in lacquer, Hamburg Steinways in polyester, which is shinier) and the construction of the hammers.

While some may argue that the type of spruce used for a soundboard has an impact on the sound, Mazurco insists that it does not. What does have an impact, he explains, are the hammers. "In New York we start out with hammers that are covered in soft felt, which we then build up with lacquer hardeners to get the tone we want, the one synonymous with the New York Steinway sound," he reports. "In Hamburg we start out with a much harder felt, then needle it down to the level we want. That added brightness you find in the Hamburg Steinways is because we start with a much harder hammer." (To "needle" a hammer is to stick needles in the felt for the purpose of softening its fibers.)

New York Steinway hammers, he adds, are made entirely by Steinway itself using a Texas-Australian blend of felt. Hamburg hammers, including the felt and the action parts, are purchased from Renner, an outside supplier, and are made to Steinway's specifications. It is the Renner hammers, a number of professionals claim, that make the Hamburg quality somewhat superior. "From a technical standpoint, Renner parts are easier for technicians to work with," Mazurco notes, "and I think that's why some technicians say they're better."

And while many experts with whom we spoke insist that you can't buy a Hamburg Steinway from Steinway New York, Mazurco says you can. "We don't display them at our New York store, and you won't find them on display at other Steinway dealerships in the country. But you definitely can order Hamburg Steinways through any Steinway dealer in the United States. You can also always fly to Hamburg to see all of the models, then order them through us directly here in the States."

Fazioli It is much less known than the other foreign brands described here, but all the experts we spoke to ranked it among the very best. "Fazioli makes beautiful instruments," states Rourk. "You can see that every detail has had a lot of care paid to it. They're also enormously expensive."

Based in Sacile, Italy, which is located in the northeast province of Friuli-Venezia Giulia, the company was founded in 1980 by Paolo Fazioli, a concert pianist and engineer. Fazioli makes about 75 grand pianos per year, ranging from $71,000 for the five-foot-two-inch model to $170,000 for the ten-foot-two-inch—and that is just with the standard black ebonized finish.

"For the soundboards they use the same spruce from Trentino that was used to make Stradivarius violins," mentions Witkowski. "They have also invented a fourth pedal, for added softness of sound. And the scale design is the first really unique one to appear since the nineteenth century." (Witkowski formerly dealt in Steinways, then gave it up when, he says, he "realized Fazioli was the best.")

Over the past seven years just 75 Fazioli pianos have been sold in the United States, mainly to serious pianists and institutions. "Less than one percent of the people buying our pianos are buying them for the name," Witkowski explains. "They're buying them for the quality. Faziolis have an incredible ability to sing. The bass is bigger and a bit brighter than a New York Steinway, and it can project much more."

 

Bechstein:

The company first opened in Berlin in 1853, and today it holds about 50 percent of the German market for grand pianos and 70 percent for uprights, most of which are its lower-end W. Hoffmann pianos. "Bechstein produces three hundred high-end grands and seven hundred uprights each year," says Nicoll. "List prices begin at $60,000 and go as high as $145,000 for a Grade A concert grand. Verticals, on the other hand, range from $16,000 to $37,000. But nobody nowadays actually pays list price for a piano." (At Steinway & Sons you always do.) About 85 percent of the work on Bechstein pianos is handcrafted. "They've been considered one of the finest pianos in the world since their inception," says Nicoll. "Bechstein has survived all these years by maintaining strict regulations in the manufacture of their instruments. They just sound and play so well, and their workmanship is flawless." Says Rourk: "The Bechstein piano has an awesome sense of presence. I had the great joy of prepping a new Bechstein a few weeks ago. Every little thing, right down to the alignment of the screws, was how it should be. It's what I would expect to see in a piano from 1910."

Model A-189, which is six feet two inches long, accounts for 50 percent of Bechstein's production of high-end grands. "It's also half of our sales to U.S. dealers," says Nicoll. "Bechstein does make a five-foot-two-inch grand. But normally if people are looking for Bechstein quality, they're more accomplished pianists and want something bigger." There is also, Nicoll adds, a definite market for vintage Bechsteins. "The brand is quite well known in music circles," he remarks. "The earliest ones that you can find in the United States are generally around a hundred and twenty years old."

 

Bösendorfer

This company, founded in Vienna in 1828, is today owned by Kimball International in Indiana. (All production still takes place in Austria.) Bösendorfer makes approximately 300 to 500 pianos per year, ranging from $72,000 for the five-foot-eight-inch grand to $160,000 for the nine-foot-six-inch model. Unlike Fazioli and Bechstein, Bösendorfer's place in the top tier is considered controversial by some, mainly because their grand-piano rims are made of spruce rather than a hardwood, such as maple. "Bösendorfer pianos are built with lighter and less dense materials in their rims," Rourk explains. "I think the Bösendorfer tone, which is classical, isn't as big or as strong, and it doesn't project as well or have the same depth of tone as the more heavily built instruments. And the quality of the sustain is affected by the quality of the rim. But they have an enormous reputation in the United States, and they are absolutely gorgeous instruments. They're made with a great deal of quality and first-class materials. The attention to detail is fantastic." Says Fine: "The Bösendorfer rim is made of spruce instead of the usual maple or beech. Granted, it's a very fine piano, but because of its unusual design and construction it may have a tonal quality that is a little less dramatic or romantic than, say, a Steinway." (Bösendorfer also makes one upright piano, a 52-inch model, which lists from $37,000 for an ebonized finish to $42,000 for rosewood.)

From the latter half of the 19th century through the early part of the 20th century, Rourk explains, there were two different schools of thought on how to build a piano. "School number one," he says, "which was led by Steinway New York and Mason & Hamlin, felt that the piano should be as strong and as heavy as possible in order to project sound well. School number two, led by the Germans, held that the piano should be as lightweight as possible and more like a guitar, allowing the instrument to vibrate.

"Bösendorfer still follows this to a great degree in how they make their pianos," Rourk continues, "in the sense that the entire rim is basically spruce and they're asking the rim to vibrate with the soundboard. An American piano maker would say that the spruce dissipates the tone. The best of the American piano makers use hardrock maple, which will bounce the sound back through the board, thereby giving it more sustain and projection."

 

Vintage Pianos

The lure of being a piano's first owner is understandable. It also can be financially beneficial if something goes wrong with the instrument, as many manufacturers, including Steinway, no longer allow new-piano warranties to be transferred when a piano is sold. (Steinway provides a five-year warranty on its new models. According to Mazurco, the company will honor a transfer of warranty among private individuals; it simply wants to discourage sales by unauthorized dealers.)

But some experts contend that buying a top-of-the-line classic-era, or "vintage," piano and having it rebuilt can lead to huge savings and sometimes even better performance than you'll get with a new piano. "At the turn of the century piano makers were able to procure superior materials in greater quantities than we can find now," says Rourk. "And there were more craftsmen who were serious about their art."

"Take a new Steinway L, five feet ten and a half inches long," says Calabrese. "It goes for about $42,000. A fully rebuilt, vintage L of the same size made between 1924 and 1938, restored in satin ebony, would go for approximately $35,000. The rebuilt model can have anoriginal Steinway foundry plate, German-made action parts, and higher-quality strings than Steinway uses in its new pianos. In that case, it's highly likely that the piano will give superior performance to a new New York Steinway."

Some vintage pianos have unusual art-case exteriors or cabinetry. But even standard models often offer exterior detailing you generally won't find on new ones, such as real ivory and ebony keys. "None of the manufacturers offer genuine ivory keys on new pianos because of the limited supply," says Rourk. "But you can use trophy ivory legally if it came into the U.S. prior to 1971 and you register it in tusk form with the Department of the Interior before you cut it up. Clients very often bring me new pianos and have me tear out the plastic on the keyboards and put ivory on." Real ivory, Rourk feels, can make a world of difference. "A good ivory keyboard, well polished, is almost like it's not there, like you're playing air. Plastic is a hard, waterproof surface," he says. "Our fingers sweat when we play, and the sweat builds up on the surface of the plastic; the keyboard can become slippery or sticky. Ivory is porous—it absorbs the sweat so the surface always remains the same." The addition of a new ivory keyboard to a top piano can also, Rourk says, add to its value—often by $5,000 or more. (The reason many vintage ivory keyboards are yellowed, Mazurco points out, is because of their sweat absorption.)

Exactly how a vintage piano is rebuilt depends greatly on the rebuilder. Some rebuilders try to modernize older pianos by adding all new interior parts. Others, such as Rourk, feel differently. "If people want a new Steinway they should buy one," he says. "The best rebuilders try hard to preserve the original lines and geometry of the older Steinways. And this can be done."

The way it's done is by modifying new parts to make them similar to the period ones, the goal being to reproduce the original sound. "For instance, when rebuilding a classic-era Steinway I use very few materials from Steinway itself," Rourk says. "I choose material that is specific to that instrument and that period. When I select hammers for a piano from the nineteen twenties, I try to duplicate the hammers of the twenties. Obviously I can't make an exact duplication. But I'm looking for the same quality of felt, weight, shape, and balance, as well as the level of resiliency and type of tone they will produce. To reproduce the action parts, I use Renner parts from Germany, which I refine further on my bench."

Steinway itself dedicates a lot of energy to rebuilding older pianos. According to Mazurco, the cost of restoring a Steinway at the Steinway Restoration Center in New York, which works on approximately 300 vintage Steinways per year, usually runs from $14,000 to $20,000. When it's completed, you get a new five-year service warranty.

However, a vintage piano does carry risk: If it's already been rebuilt, it may not have been rebuilt well; if it hasn't been rebuilt, you can't be sure in advance that the cost of buying and restoring it won't exceed the cost of purchasing a new one in the first place. You also can't really be sure what the end result will be. "You might end up with a piano that's better than a new one," says Fine. "But you might not. The risk of a piano that needs rebuilding is that you don't know how it will turn out."

The most important thing to do if you're considering used or vintage pianos: Have a technician and/or piano rebuilder examine it before you buy. "It definitely should be checked over by a really good technician," says Nicoll, "to see if there are any major problems." Says Calabrese: "The person who will do the restoring will be able to give you a realistic estimate of how much work needs to be done."

 

The Most Valuable Details

Whether a high-end piano is new or vintage, there are elements that can increase its value even more, as described below.

Exotic Wood Veneer Finishes:
According to some experts, an exterior finished in exotic wood will raise a piano's value. "Finish plays an enormous role in the value of a piano," says Rourk. "Ebonized pianos happen to be the rave right now. But I think a piano with a good quality veneer, nicely finished, is of greater value than an ebonized one. I think that's reflected in the retail prices too." (Wood veneers, exotic or not, always cost more.) Calabrese concurs. "The most important things from the standpoint of investment value are the design of the instrument for performance and the presentation, or how it looks," he says. "A plain black piano may be fine, but it is not necessarily the piano that is going to have the best value sixty years from now. That will probably be the one that's inlaid with some exotic wood."

At Fazioli, for instance, a six-foot-eleven-inch F212 grand, which counts for 52 percent of the company's production and is one of the two most popular models in the United States (the other is the six-foot-one-inch grand piano), costs $89,500 for the ebonized finish. In walnut it goes for $95,900; and in pyramid mahogany it sells for $99,200. If you want bubinga wood, you'll pay about $100,000.

At Steinway, 25 percent of all pianos have veneered finishes. "They cost more than the ones with ebonized finishes," says Mazurco. "In the past, ninety-five percent of the pianos we built had the ebonized finish, and in Europe that's still the case. But five to six years ago Americans began to want a more traditional look at home. They like the natural wood veneers." He's referring to Steinway's Crown Jewel Collection of grand pianos, which was introduced in 1993 and includes nine wood finishes ranging from mahogany and dark cherry to Kewazinga bubinga and East Indian rosewood. Prices range from $36,500 for the five-foot-one-inch Model S baby grand in mahogany (in an ebonized finish it costs $4,100 less) to $127,300 for a nine-foot Model D concert grand in Macassar ebony ($44,200 more than it costs ebonized).

Art-Case Exteriors:
The possibilities are endless, and they can raise a piano's value greatly if the decoration is done well (as long as the interior is top quality too). Since the grand's earliest years, art-case pianos have been embellished with everything from inlaid gold and ivory to ornate seashells and cast-bronze statuettes to hand-painted pastoral scenes. "Art-case pianos were quite popular at the turn of the century," explains Sujatri Reisinger, who with his brother Gabor owns Klavierhaus, a piano restoration company in Manhattan. "They were seen as status symbols, doubling as furniture. But because of the Depression, their production stopped abruptly around 1930." Fifteen years ago the Reisinger brothers began importing art-case pianos from Europe and bringing them back to life. "In the past, antiques dealers would buy them, but the instruments were frequently worthless," Reisinger says. "We restore the inlaid exotic woods, the gilding, and the painting, and we rebuild the interiors and make them into musical instruments again. About seven or eight years ago they began to regain popularity."

Steinway & Sons has also become interested in reviving the art-case tradition. In 1998 Steinway introduced a new art-case collection, and so far a dozen have been sold, totaling $1,700,000. "Most of them have been designs we've built on spec," says Mazurco, "in some cases, limited-edition pianos such as the Rhapsody, constructed in maple and finished in a dark-blue lacquer, built to commemorate George Gershwin's hundredth anniversary. It costs $145,000, and we're currently fulfilling seven orders." Steinway also produced a limited-edition 50th Anniversary Aspen Piano last year, designed by Silas Kopf. "A couple came to us and said that they wanted something like it but not identical," according to Mazurco. "So we put them in touch with Kopf, and he agreed to design theirs as well." (The piano, which is currently being built, is a five-foot-ten-and-a-half-inch Model L grand, which will cost $121,000; the very same piano with an ebonized finish lists for $42,300.)

You shouldn't, however, be tempted to just run out and purchase any art-case piano you can find. "A piano is equal parts performance and presentation," says Calabrese. "You've got to consider the condition of the interior. Unfortunately, I think that more people buy on appearance than anything else." Says Nicoll: "If you see a piano that is really beautiful on the outside, this doesn't mean that the inside will match in terms of quality."

Custom-Built Exteriors:
"Having a sculptural piano is the latest trend," says Calabrese. "Some people decide to acquire a Steinway or a Bechstein upright piano, and then have a case built around it. It's possible to spend over $100,000 on an upright just for the custom exterior."

Calabrese says he once heard of a couple who wanted a piano designed to look like their house in Colorado. "So they had an artist do it up in a sketch and then got an architect to transfer it into piano-builder's plans. I also saw an Art Nouveau piano recently that had a convex keyboard. It was not made to fit into a particular space; it was a design statement." Goudy cites someone who bought a nine-and-a-half-foot-long Bösendorfer Imperial grand piano that had a one-of-a-kind custom exterior built for approximately $220,000. "At Steinway we won't distort the shape of the rim or the scale design," says Mazurco. "But other than that we can do just about anything to the exterior." Says Witkowski of Fazioli: "Fazioli will build any exterior you want, be it an art case or an unusual sculptural form, taking into consideration the instrument's internal requirements."

But even in the case of custom fantasy sculptures, one shouldn't ignore the realities of the market. "There's no point in having a custom exterior built for a poor-quality interior," says Calabrese. "Ultimately, you'll only be attempting to resell a sculpture that sounds bad."

 

52-Inch Bechstein Upright

The 52-inch upright Model 8a from the German manufacturer Bechstein is considered by many to be the best vertical piano in the world. Its list price starts at $37,600 for the polished ebonized finish and increases to $41,620 for polished cherry, oak, walnut, or mahogany. "Bechstein makes a particularly beautiful upright, both in appearance and sound," says piano consultant Philip Calabrese. Nonetheless, the experts we spoke to agree that the only reason to buy an upright is if you simply don't have the space for a grand.

 

Treasure Trove

The new Steinway Crown Jewel Collection is an example of the added value of an exotic wood veneer. Shown above is the five-foot-ten-and-a-half-inch Model L grand finished in Kewazinga bubinga, a west African wood. The Model L with this veneer lists for $52,700; the Model D concert grand costs $104,000.

 

Vintage Art Cases

Most high-end vintage pianos will appreciate to some degree over time, perhaps reaching as much as 85 percent of the value of a new model by the same manufacturer. In some instances their values can skyrocket. That was true for this fine 1883 Steinway grand piano, whose art case was decorated by English artist Sir Lawrence Alma-Tadema. It sold for $390,000 at a Sotheby's auction in 1980, then at a 1997 Christie's auction for $1.2 million—to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Massachusetts.

 

Maintenance

If maintained well, a piano can last approximately 80 years before it needs to be restored. That means carefully controlling the environment in which it is placed and hiring a technician to service it regularly.

"A piano likes a slightly cool, moist environment best," says Philip Calabrese, a high-end piano technician and buyer's agent. "If it's kept in a hot, dry room it could decrease its life span by as much as one half." The ideal temperature, he says, is under 75 degrees; the ideal relative humidity level is between 45 and 70 percent. The piano should not be positioned near sources of direct heat, cold, or light—that means away from radiators, heating vents, fireplaces, unshaded windows, and windows or doors that may let in drafts.

As for servicing, a technician should come once or twice a year to tune it (approximately $100). If the piano is played often, a technician should file hammers, tighten action screws, and regulate the action every few years, which can cost from $250 to $750, depending on use and wear. "It might need to be done every year for a heavily played piano, every ten years for one that's idle." says Calabrese. To find a licensed technician in your area, call the Piano Technicians Guild (816-753-7747).

 

Glossary

Action Parts
A composite of levers, springs, and hammers (which causes the strings to vibrate) and felt-covered dampers (which stop the strings from vibrating).

Bridges
Pieces of wood that the strings press against and which transfer the sound to the soundboard.

Cabinet Or Cabinetry
The outer skin of the piano, which encloses its internal parts and provides structural support.

Case
The curved exterior of the grand piano. Also called the rim.

Hammers
Felt-covered wooden mallets that strike the strings to produce sound.

Keys
Wooden levers covered at one end with plastic, wood, or ivory, which pivot on a key frame and rest on the key bed. Keys activate the action parts.

Music Desk
The wooden rack above the keyboard that holds sheet music.

Pins
The metal posts around which strings are wrapped. At one end are the hitch pins, and at the other are the tuning pins, which are turned with a tuning hammer, or wrench, to adjust the string's tension.

Pinblock
The laminated hardwood plank that runs the width of the piano and is attached to the plate, the wooden framework, or both. It has holes in which tuning pins are embedded. Also called the wrestplank.

Plate
The cast-iron frame across which the strings are stretched.

Propstick
The piece of wood that holds a piano lid open. In larger grand pianos there are often two such sticks of different lengths.

Scale Design
The technical specifications for the tonal design of the piano, including the stringing scale (which involves the length, thickness, and tension of the strings, as well as their arrangement across the plate), the placement of the bridges, and the construction of the soundboard.

Soundboard
The large, thin piece of wood that is glued around the piano's perimeter to its back. It amplifies the sound, which is transferred to it through the bridges.

 

Cool Jazz

For playing mainly jazz, kudos are frequently given to Yamaha pianos. When it comes to classical music, none of the experts with whom we spoke ranked them among the very best. "Yamahas come out of the factory ready to play, and they hold up well," says Larry Fine, author of The Piano Book: Buying & Owning a New or Used Piano (Brookside Press). "The consistency of manufacture is great too. But they have a very bright tone to begin with, which isn't as good for classical music; however, some jazz pianists prefer it."

Says Philip Calabrese, a high-end piano technician and buyer's agent: "Yamaha makes an excellent instrument. Their quality of manufacture is consistently the highest of any company in the world. The level to which their artisans are trained is excellent. But that does not mean they use the best materials or have the best design, so I'm not sure a Yamaha would be worth rebuilding. I think they're not included in the super-premium category because pianists in general consider them a little bit cold and without character, almost too mass-produced."

Thomas Rourk, a high-end-piano rebuilder and former head technician at Mason & Hamlin, agrees. "A Yamaha grand is manufactured almost to a level of perfection," says Rourk. "If you have two six-foot Yamaha grands, you can exchange their action parts and not have to make any adjustments. But at the end of the day, it's not a Bechstein or a Steinway. I think the tone is inferior; it's extremely bright. And it doesn't project as well."

 

Sources

Manufacturers

strong>Bechstein (Premier Piano)
800-531-0133;
www.bechstein.de;
www.premierpiano.com

Bluthner (German Piano Imports)
800-954-3200;
www.bluethner.de

Bosendorfer (Springs Valley Manufacturing)
800-422-1611;
www.bosendorfer.com

Fazioli (International Brokers Inc.)
501-753-8616;
www.fazioli.com

Mason & Hamlin (Pianodisc)
800-566-3472;
www.masonhamlin.com

Steinway & Sons
800-223-6017;
www.steinway.com

Yamaha
800-854-1569;
www.yamaha.com

 

Consultants/Technicians

Philip Calabrese
New York City;
212-777-1388

Larry Fine Massachusetts;
800-545-2022;
www.pianobook.com

Thomas Goudy $
Wisconsin;
920-738-0006

 

Rebuilders

Thomas Rourk $
Massachusetts;
978-369-5366

Klavierhaus Inc. $
New York City;
212-245-4535.

 

$ Establishment accepts no charge/credit cards or accepts cards other than American Express.

Establishment sells to the trade only.