The investment value of Steinway pianos has long been touted by piano dealers. In their sales training, Steinway teaches an acronym based on their name that must be learned by all candidates: “S” stands for sound; “T” for touch, “E” for enduring beauty, “I” for investment, and so on. New salespersons must memorize all the S.T.E.I.N.W.A.Y. touch points in order for their training to be complete.
The “investment” touch point promotes Steinway’s historically high resale value. New Steinways are expensive, and that makes the market for used Steinways very good. In 2003, Reuters reported: “A 10-year-old Steinway in good condition usually sells for about 75 percent of the current retail price, which goes up about 4 percent each year.” Consequently, there is a big demand for used Steinway pianos. Leo Spellman, senior director of communications for Steinway & Sons says “The biggest competition for a new Steinway piano is an old Steinway piano.”
But does Steinway actually live up to its reputation as a good investment and, if so, under what circumstances? If you own a Steinway piano, how can you determine its present value? If you intend to “invest” in a Steinway, what should you buy? What about other brands of piano? Do they hold their value also? Opinions on these topics vary widely throughout the piano industry, and each answer comes with its own set of questions.
Just because a piano says “Steinway” doesn’t automatically mean it’s a wonderful piano and a good investment. Played or not, age takes a toll on a piano. Unlike a violin or a guitar, pianos are mechanical and machines deteriorate over time. Even pianos that have been un-played for decades can develop serious problems. The phrase “it’s like new because it’s never been played” is rubbish. The high tension of a piano’s strings combined with constant changes in humidity can cause soundboards and bridges to crack and action pivot points to seize. A 1930 Steinway that now sits in an air conditioned home still sat in an un-air conditioned home for 40 or 50 years, subject to the effects of humidity. In addition, many Steinways have been “sliced and diced” over the years by piano technicians in an effort to keep them working. Many Steinways have been adulterated with inappropriate parts and suffer from poor repairs.
In today’s piano trade, there is an inclination to gut an old piano, leaving only the case, cast iron plate and action frame intact; everything else is replaced with new parts (referred to as “re-manufacturing). In some instances, this improves a pianos performance. But when investment, not performance, is an owner’s primary motivation, then another approach is needed.
In the antiques trade a primary value marker is an item’s authenticity. Preserving an item’s historical authenticity is paramount. A particular Steinway piano’s place in history can be destroyed by gutting it and installing all new parts. A re-manufactured Steinway may indeed be a good investment relative to the cost of a new Steinway—for about 20 years. Then, it becomes just another old piano with all of its historical significance tossed onto the trash heap. It’s nothing as far as history goes. From an investment standpoint, a proper restoration will make the piano more valuable as time passes.
For antique and vintage pianos, the Historic Preservation Policy Standards of the Smithsonian Institution provide the proper guidelines:
“The historic character of a property shall be retained and preserved. The removal of historic materials or alteration of features…that characterize a property shall be avoided. Distinctive features, finishes and construction techniques or examples of craftsmanship that characterize a historic property shall be preserved.”
My purpose in this analysis is to discuss restoring a vintage or antique Steinway grand as a long-term investment. What constitutes “vintage” is an arguable point, so I have arbitrarily decided to draw the line at 1931: any Steinway built prior to 1931 is either vintage or antique, and any Steinway built from 1931 forward is modern. Here’s my reasoning: Any particular Steinway piano will only contain the features that were patented prior to its date of manufacture. Steinway grand pianos made prior to 1931 will not have the accelerated action; those made prior to 1936 will not have the diaphragmatic soundboard; pianos made prior to 1963 will not have the hexagrip pinblock, and so on. If a consumer returned a vintage Steinway to the Steinway factory for re-manufacturing, all of the historical features of the piano would be ripped out and replaced with a 2013 action, pinblock and soundboard. The vintage instrument would become a modern instrument in a vintage case, and authenticity would be lost.
Let’s start our “investment” analysis by establishing a common vocabulary. The following categories are taken directly from the Steinway & Sons website. There are no industry-standard definitions for differing states of repair/disrepair for a piano, and Steinway’s definitions give us a place to start.
• Original Condition: A Steinway piano in original condition is one that has never had any parts replaced since it was manufactured. Typically, these pianos are less than 20 years old.
• Repaired: This is a Steinway that has had parts repaired over time without replacing any major components. The piano has been maintained and is still capable of being played daily, but major parts will likely need replacing in the near future.
• Rebuilt: A rebuilt Steinway is a piano in which all the components have been rebuilt to their original condition. Some major components commonly rebuilt are the soundboard, bridges and action parts, as well as the case.
• Stein-Was: A Stein-Was is a used Steinway piano that has had one or more parts replaced with non-Steinway parts. Therefore, it was a Steinway piano; now it isn’t.
• Factory Restoration (re-manufacture): A Steinway piano that was restored by the Steinway Restoration Center in New York City and had the original parts replaced with genuine Steinway parts.
• Shell: A used Steinway piano that has never been restored. Typically, the piano is not in playing condition, if it will play at all. The piano has been neglected, damaged or compromised, and has had no annual maintenance for an extended period of time.
It’s clear from the above definitions that Steinway believes it is important for a restoration to use 100-percent genuine Steinway parts. In fact, its website states “If it doesn’t have 12,116 genuine Steinway parts, it isn’t a Steinway”. Let me clarify a couple of points: first, “genuine” is not the same thing as “authentic.” Also, Steinway currently only makes the wooden parts used in its pianos. Everything else—the cast iron plates, wire for strings, plastic keytops, wool cloth and felt, hinges and everything else that’s not wood—is purchased from outside vendors. New Steinways made in Hamburg, Germany, often use different parts than their American counterpart.
In restoring a vintage Steinway, it’s important to use parts that duplicate the original parts, and you can’t buy those from Steinway. This methodology (rebuilding the original parts) fits within Steinway’s definition of “rebuilt.” Disassembling a piano action and restoring all the worn leather, cloth, felt and wooden parts is tedious work, which is why most piano rebuilders prefer to gut the piano and buy all new parts. Saves time, saves money. Manufacturing a new soundboard, pinblock and action parts for vintage Steinways requires specialized equipment that most shops don’t have.
One shop that does have the specialized equipment and experience needed to restore vintage Steinways to their original condition is The Antique Piano Shop in Friendsville, Tenn. I recently spoke with the shop’s owner, Michael Stinnett, who described the specialized milling jigs he has built for duplicating the parts for antique pianos. He also recounted that in today’s piano market, historic preservation takes a back seat to performance. It seems that what most consumers want is a new Steinway at a used Steinway price. So, they gut a vintage Steinway and install all new parts. Most of Michael’s restorations involve turning vintage instruments into new instruments in a vintage case. Most, but not all. Says Michael:
“We prefer to do our restoration work with a historical perspective in mind. During the 19th century, designs and patents in piano building were constantly evolving. By the last part of the 19th century, the piano had evolved fairly close to today’s modern standard of design.
“In the real market, most buyers prefer to have an antique piano restored to modern playing condition so that it can be used as a conventional instrument. This generally requires some modification to earlier instruments so that they incorporate later improvements in action design, etc. We find that the majority of our buyers fall into this category.
“There are a few historical purists, however, who prefer to have their instruments restored to absolute historical accuracy. Although we enthusiastically promote restoration work with historical accuracy, the real market simply doesn’t support this kind of work. Alas, historical purists who truly appreciate historical accuracy and preservation have only been a very small fraction of our customer base.”
Here are the recommendations can I make regarding restoring a vintage Steinway:
• If a primary motivation is the piano’s investment value, and the piano has been manufactured in the past 50 years, send it back to the Steinway factory for a complete re-manufacture. All of the parts used will be contemporary to Steinway pianos of that age;
• If performance is a primary motivation, send the piano either to Steinway or to a shop with an established reputation for “doing things right,” like the A-S Company in New York City;
• Where historical accuracy is important, send the piano to a shop that’s equipped to deal with antique pianos and has the experience to get the job done correctly, like the Antique Piano Shop mentioned above.
As Irving Berlin sang in his song, “I Love a Piano”: “I know a fine way to treat a Steinway.”
So do I; like a piece of history.
Originally posted 2013-12-23 15:59:00.