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Piano is not my forte
May 25, 2014 4:56 AM   Subscribe

I've come into possession of a 1914 Lester upright piano - with provenance - and need help finding resources to determine its value.

The 1914 upright Lester piano came as a “free gift with purchase” with the house I recently bought. The previous home owners (who were the second owners of this home) inherited it from the original owners/builder when they bought the house in 2009, and were either being nice, sentimental with the house, or were too cheap to pay a piano mover (which I have come to understand often costs more than pianos). All the surnames on my documents are the surnames of the original homeowners.

As far as condition, on the outside, it looks pretty good for a 100 year piano, and I was told with a few tunings and some repairs it would be good to go for me to learn piano. I've been to this 'what is my piano worth' site, and I can see it’s not worth much, but I've watched a fair bit of Antiques Roadshow and have come to understand that provenance can increase the value of an item. A friend suggested I look into it as I might have something worth more than the price of a new piano. I have no emotional connection to the piano and wouldn’t be broken hearted to part with it. In fact, in a perfect world I could get enough for it that could cover at least the cost of a new piano for me to learn on and all the moving involved.

Based on the documents that came with the piano, I am 95% sure the person who bought the piano in 1917 is the father of the man who built my house in 1955. My neighbor is occasionally in touch with the previous owner’s daughter, so I do have a source to confirm/deny my hunch if I need to.

Here is a scan of 3 of the 4 documents that came with the piano. They are:
-A typed letter sent from Mr. Geo H. Lofland from “F.A. North Company – makers of Lester Pianos” in Camden, NJ to Mr. N on Water Street in Philadelphia. I checked both addresses on google maps and neither are there anymore.
-A typed receipt stating that $100 was received for partial payment for a piano, “style 26 mahogany”. On it in pencil is written “received payment in full”.
- The envelope these two documents came in, addressed, stamped and post-marked
- (not pictured) a certificate from Lester Piano company dated 6/14/1914 stating that piano “53758” has a 10 year guarantee. On the back of this document, is a “how to care for your piano” from Lester Piano Company, 1306 Chestnut Street, Philadelphia. On google maps, that property still exists, but is vacant.

There is also a stool with glass ball claw feet; I don’t know it they came as a set.

So Mefites with experience with antiques and/or pianos - is this selling this piano something I should pursue or do I just have a ‘cool story bro’ to share with friends about my piano? What sites or forums do you recommend or who might I contact to sell my piano? Or who might I contact locally (I’m in the Philly burbs) to help me out with this?

Thanks in advance!
posted by NoraCharles to Media & Arts (8 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
More likely you would have to pay somebody to take it away. Old pianos are not worth much because they are in fairly high supply, fairly low demand, expensive to transport, and they don't improve with age like good violins.
posted by beagle at 5:39 AM on May 25 [3 favorites]

Provenance is helpful/value-enhancing when there might be questions as to actual age or authenticity of an item. 'Comes with receipt' is a nice touch here but not a value add.

Even if it didn't need tuning it would be hard to sell at any price. As is, this is the sort of thing that is regularly offered for free. Few people are out for old pianos that need to be moved and need tuning, and if they are, there's no shortage of the freebies.

The stool sounds nice; you might be able to sell it separately for a wee bit of cash if it's in decent shape.
posted by kmennie at 5:43 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

Since you intend to play it and would need to get it tuned and serviced anyway, I would get a piano technician to come take a look at it. They're not piano dealers, but they'll have a good sense of what you're working with.

Like the above commenters, I would be astonished if this was actually worth a positive amount of money.
posted by dfan at 5:55 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

That is a good-looking piano but unless you personally want to restore it and learn to play, it's probably not worth anything. If you decide to get rid of it, since it is pre-WWII, the keys are ivory veneers. I've seen handicrafted bookmarks made from old piano keys. I'm sure Etsy has some good ideas.
posted by TWinbrook8 at 6:35 AM on May 25

Sorry to say, but everything old isn't necessarily worth $$$ --- and yeah, documentation and provenance only matter when it comes to something like proving an Andy Warhol painting is by Andy Warhol. In your piano's case, the documentation would only matter if it proved the piano was owned by someone like Duke Ellington or was the one Lauren Bacall sat on while Harry Truman played it --- in other words, if it had a link to someone famous or some special historical event.

Other than that, sorry: it's just a very nice but totally ordinary piano that probably isn't worth much at all. I'd keep it and sign up for lessons.
posted by easily confused at 7:38 AM on May 25 [1 favorite]

As others have noted, the provenance information isn't going to add much if any value on the antique piano market--modern pianos are easily identified as to their manufacturer and based on a serial number it's easy enough to figure out their year of manufacture as well. Your provenance doesn't associate it with anyone of historical significance so it's not going to gain value that way, either.

Another thing to consider is how much it will cost to even get the piano to good playing condition. "Tuning and a few repairs" could--if you're lucky--mean a good tuning and fixing a few sticky keys and might run you a couple hundred bucks. But at that age of piano, especially if it's not been maintained by piano enthusiasts as it's aged, it might have more systematic problems that would require more costly repairs to bring it into decent playing condition (regulating the action, voicing the hammers, and replacing bridle straps are things that older pianos may need to have done to play decently--those kinds of repairs would run $500-1000 depending on how much needs to be done).

That's one of the major differences between something like a piano and something like a violin in this regard: a piano is an extremely complex mechanical device involving several thousand parts that can break/go bad, while a violin is a quite simple one with a few dozen parts that require repair/replacement over the years.

Finally, unfortunately your particular piano has an extremely utilitarian design, so it's not got any bonus points as far as being interesting or attractive.

Since pianos are a PITA to move, here's what I would suggest to minimize your hassles and expenses, assuming you really do want to have a working instrument and learn to play the piano:
(1) try to get a friend in who plays piano and test it out to see whether it's just in need of a tuning, or whether the whole action is really off. (Again, one or two bad keys is usually not an expensive repair.) It's physically possible to play a piano with bad overall action, but it's sad and frustrating and can easily set a beginner off the whole experience.
(a) if the action is reasonable, then bring in the tuner to have it tuned (expect to spend around $100) and possibly fix any minor problems where the cost/benefit ratio make sense.
(b) if the action is overall poor, I would suggest not investing any money in this piano--unload it for free, and instead spend a few hundred for a newer used piano. For less than $500 you should be able to get a student-quality spinet (shorter than a full upright, and usually weigh around 300 lbs as opposed to 600+ lbs for a full upright), manufactured within the last 30 years and in good playing condition that won't require anything more than tuning, and that will likely hold its tuning better than a 100-year old instrument. Something like this Kimball spinet.
posted by drlith at 8:28 AM on May 25 [2 favorites]

It's very common for pianos that old to have tiny cracks in the pin block. Where that's the case, they're more or less unsalvageable, and a total money pit. Why? Because they go out of tune, chronically and really fast. Like, between a week and a month depending on the severity of the crack. You generally can't fix it without replacing the whole pin block, which tends to be at least $500-$1000. And after you fix that, you usually find out something else is wrong. Your best bet would be to ask a qualified piano tech to take a good hard look at it, and tell you if it's worth trying to salvage. That'll cost you less that $100. The trick is finding a good tech; if you happen to know a long-time piano teacher you can ask for a recommendation.
posted by tkfu at 2:27 PM on May 25

If you want to get a sense how much restoration will cost, take a look at this website:
posted by LittleMy at 3:52 PM on May 27

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