There are two primary types of accordions: button-key (button) accordions and piano-key accordions. Piano accordions like this one are the more popular and sought-after model of the two.
American soldiers left for the Second World War with the sounds of American popular music ringing in their ears. City boys were humming the big-band sounds of Goodman and Miller, Southerners were whistling Carter Family tunes and Westerners were tapping their boots to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys. When they returned from Europe, though, our G.I.s had a different musical sound bouncing around in their heads: the folk music of France, Germany and Italy, a sound dominated by accordions.
Accordions were not a new sound to Americans; they had been a regular part of American popular music since Vaudeville. Accordions were regularly used by travelling music groups as a substitute for piano, which was not always available at performing venues. Bob Wills had an accordion player in his band and for a while, so did Bill Monroe and the Carters. But accordion didn’t start to move to the forefront of American popular music until after World War Two. Radio stars like Frankie Yankovic (father of “Weird Al” Yankovic) and TV stars such as Myron Floren of “The Lawrence Welk Show” brought the accordion to new heights of popularity. Soon, school children all over America were lining up to take accordion lessons. In the early 1950s, accordion was arguably the most popular folk instrument in America.
Accordions remained popular for about 20 years after the close of WWII. The years from 1945 to about 1965 were considered the “golden years” for accordion players. As rock ’n’ roll became popular, accordion sales began to plummet. Elvis Presley and Buddy Holly didn’t have accordions in their bands. When The Beatles led the “British Invasion” to America in 1963, accordions began to be unceremoniously tossed into attics and closets. The electric guitar became the new king of pop music.
Today, Baby Boomers are bringing their parent’s estates to market and thousands of accordions bought in the 1950s are being removed from attics and closets and taken to the auction floor. Accordions are often beautifully made, with bright colors and fancy mother-of-pearl inlays. They have an expensive look about them and the combination of an accordion’s beauty and nostalgia often inspires Boomers to bid on these instruments without knowing much about them. After all, accordions have been out of the limelight for more than 50 years. No one advertises them anymore, so consumers have little feel for an accordion’s value.
Button accordions like this are still regularly used in Irish and Cajun music, so there are targeted buying or selling opportunities to musicians in these kinds of bands.
Is there a market for vintage accordions? How much are vintage accordions worth? What’s a fair price and how can one tell if an accordion is any good? My review of recent auction sales shows that there is an active U.S. market for vintage accordions. On eBay alone, there are currently hundreds of vintage accordions listed for sale (and many more new ones). Though no longer in the forefront of American popular music, the accordion is a favorite of musical instrument collectors and it has a strong cult following among musicians. Let’s take a look at what makes an accordion valuable and how to determine its range of selling prices.
There are two primary types of accordions: button-key (button) accordions and piano-key (piano) accordions. Button accordions are still regularly used in Irish and Cajun music, but since piano accordions are the most popular and sought-after model, they are the ones we will be discussing. The value of a piano accordion is based on its brand, size, musical resources, age and condition.
There were hundreds of brands of accordions on the market in the 20th century; most were made in Germany, Austria, Italy, Eastern Europe and even Asia. American-made accordions were typically assembled from imported Italian parts. Unquestionably, the best mass-produced accordions were made in Germany, Austria and Italy. The largest manufacturer was Hohner (Germany), which built a wide range of instruments and it is preferred by many top players. Other top-notch instruments include Scandalli, Pigini and Soprani from Italy. Eastern European brands are a step down from European brands in quality and Chinese brands are far behind the rest with regard to quality.
All accordions imported into the U.S. fall under the labeling requirements of the McKinley Tariff Act, which states that the country of origin must be clearly marked on the instrument. It is likely that somewhere on your accordion will be a tag that says “Made in Germany,” “Made in Italy” or something similar. The country of origin will give you a clue as to the overall quality of the instrument. Before you buy, it’s important to perform an Internet search for the name on the accordion. The instrument you are considering may have been hand-built by a private shop and sometimes these accordions are very highly regarded and bring top dollar.
Size and Resources
A full-sized piano accordion has 120 bass buttons—six rows of 20 each. Professional models will have at least 60 bass buttons; anything less than that, like this model, is a student model or a toy.
Accordions are generally described according to their size (number of keys on each side of the accordion). For example, an accordion labeled 41/120 has 41 piano-style keys (both black and white) on the right side and 120 bass buttons on the left side. A full-sized piano accordion has 120 bass buttons—six rows of 20 each. Professional models will have at least 60 bass buttons; anything less than that is a student model or a toy.
Also affecting the price of an accordion is the instrument’s tonal resources; i.e. the number of sets of reeds that it has. An accordion’s sound is created by air passing over free reeds, which vibrate to produce a pitch. Air is generated by the in and out squeezing of the accordion, whose bellows pull and blow air over the reeds. The number of reed sets can be determined by the number of switches (“tabs”) on the accordion. Think of a set of reeds as being a large harmonica inside the accordion. Accordions can have up to six “harmonicas” inside; most have four or five. Each harmonica is tuned to a different register; some give low pitches, some give high pitches. By operating an accordion’s tabs, players can control which sets of reeds air will pass through when they press a white or black key. Thus, players can combine the sounds of different registers to obtain a variety of sounds from their accordion.
The number of reed sets is expressed for both the treble and bass. For example, three sets of treble reeds and five sets of bass reeds will be expressed as 3/5. So, if you had an accordion that was labeled 3/5, 41/120, you would have an accordion with three sets of treble reeds, five sets of bass reeds, 41 piano-style keys and 120 bass buttons. The more keys, buttons and tabs an accordion has the more it will sell for (providing that condition and brand are equal).
Age and Condition
On initial inspection, an accordion’s keys should be level (none sticking above or below the others) and both keys and tabs should go up and down with equal spring pressure. It should not smell moldy or musty. Look for missing screws and hardware and check for signs of mildew on the bellows and straps. Strap it on; squeeze the bellows in and out and play each key and press every tab individually. The keys should all go down when they are pressed and return by spring action; none should stay down. There should be no notes sounding unless you have pushed down a key. Listen for leaks and hissing. To check the instrument’s compression, pull the bellows out without playing any keys; it should be very difficult for the bellows to move in or out when no keys or buttons are down.
The number of reed sets can be determined by the number of switches (“tabs”) on the accordion.
Age and condition are inseparably connected. Like pianos and organs, accordions are mechanical instruments that deteriorate with age. Most accordion reeds are glued into place with a mixture of beeswax and rosin that become brittle with age. Even in storage, wax will deteriorate and leather reed valves will begin to sag, causing notes to sound “windy” or not play at all. Hence, accordions that were “never played” are not “like new.” Any accordion that is over 25 years old will need to be inspected by a repairman unless proof that it has been properly maintained is provided.
Usually, accordions need to be overhauled at least every 20 years and tuned and serviced more often than that, depending on use. It’s rare that brittle wax can be replaced only on the bad notes; old wax tends to come off in chunks. An accordion overhaul typically includes cleaning, tuning, straightening and/or replacing reed valves, pouring new wax and minor repairs. For a skilled repairman, this constitutes 20 to 40 hours of work, plus the cost of materials. Overhauling a professionally-sized accordion can easily cost $1,000 or more, depending on the area.
Unless an accordion can be dated to the 19th century, it won’t have any antique value. The accordion was invented in 1829 in Austria; most truly antique accordions will be of the button variety rather than piano variety. Over the years, a variety of accordion layouts have been tried and discarded. Clues that an accordion is an antique would be that it doesn’t have a “Made In” label, and that it differs significantly from what is now recognized as a standard accordion: i.e., it has two sides with a keyboard on the right, bass buttons on the left, a bellows in between and tone tabs indicating the reed registers.
To review: Big piano accordions are worth more than small piano accordions. Playability is more important than age. Country of origin matters.
The following prices assume that the accordion has been stored unplayed in an upright position in a hard-shell case with little maintenance and is in good cosmetic condition (since that describes most accordions found in today’s auctions). If an instrument has leaks, sticky keys or broken tabs, add repair costs of at least $1,000 to the ultimate price. If proof of maintenance or recent overhaul is provided, add $1,000 to the price. If it is mildewed, don’t buy it at all. If the instrument is being purchased at retail from a reputable accordion dealer and comes with a guarantee, expect to pay three to five times the prices listed.
An accordion’s keys should be level (none sticking above or below the others), and both keys and tabs should go up and down with equal spring pressure. This example shows sticking keys.
For the purpose of this evaluation, I consider “vintage” accordions to be those made between 1945 (after WWII) and 1965 (post-Beatles). Safe high bids at an estate auction might be:
• 3/5 (or larger) 41/120 1945-1965 Italian, German, or Austrian accordions: $600;
• 3/5 (or larger) 41/120 1945-1965 accordions by Hohner, Scandalli, Pigini and Soprani $1,200;
• Smaller 1950-1980 Italian, German or Austrian accordions $250;
• 3/5 (or larger) 41/120 1945-1965 Eastern European accordions $300;
• Smaller 1950-1965 Eastern European accordions $150;
• 3/5 (or larger) 41/120 1945-1965 Asian accordions $100;
• Smaller 1945-1965 Asian accordions $50.
Wayne Jordan spent more than 40 years in the music business as a performer, teacher, repairman and music store owner. In 25 years of musical instrument retailing he has bought, sold, rented or repaired thousands of pianos, band & orchestra, combo, and folk instruments. Wayne is currently a Virginia-licensed auctioneer and certified personal property appraiser. For more info, visit Wayne Jordan Auctions.
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