I Inherited the Family Piano… Now What?

This Mason Hamlin piano is an example of a “console” piano, the midsize-subcatagory of vertical, or upright, pianos.

How do you stop an elephant from charging? Take away his credit card. Why do elephants have trunks? Because they would look silly with glove compartments. What do you give a seasick elephant? Lots of room.

Silly, I know. But to Baby Boomers, these jokes are a reminder of the “elephant joke” fad of the 1960s. Back then, elephant jokes—every bit as popular as “knock-knock” jokes—were on the lips of every adolescent.

Today, Boomers having to settle their parents’ estates face an “elephant in the room” that isn’t so funny: the family piano. Many pianos are just downright hard to sell nowadays. They are heavy, difficult to move, expensive to repair and keep tuned and technologically backward. Acoustic pianos are rarely sought-after items for middle-class homes. Hardly a week goes by that I don’t see once-expensive pianos passed over by auction bidders.

Today, digital pianos own the market. And why not? They are often less expensive and don’t require tuning or big strong men with special equipment to move them. Junior and Missy can practice while wearing headphones so Mom and Dad can enjoy a quiet evening. Digital pianos are easily hooked up to a computer, and there is a vast array of educational software available that makes learning to play the piano fun.

It took me years to accept what I have said in the above paragraph as truth. You see, I spent decades in the piano business in a variety of capacities. I’ve bought, sold, tuned, repaired and restored thousands of pianos. Yet, in the end, I swapped my Baldwin acoustic piano for a Roland digital, and I’ve never regretted the move.

So, for executors or siblings facing the task of getting rid of the family piano, assuming the heirs don’t want it, here’s my assessment of the piano situation—what sells, what doesn’t, where to sell, how to advertise, how to donate a piano, where to find a tuner and a mover, how to get an appraisal and other things you will need to know to get that piano out of the house. I’ll only be discussing acoustic pianos in this article.

Let’s start by determining what type of piano you have. Pianos come in two basic types: vertical pianos and grand pianos. Vertical pianos are those whose backs go up against a wall. Grand pianos are horizontal and sit on three legs. Within each of the two types, pianos are classified by size.

This August Forester grand piano was offered for $1—a testament as to how difficult it can be to sell an unwanted piano.

Vertical pianos are measured from the floor to the top of the lid; pianos 39 inches and smaller are called spinets, those 40 inches to 42 inches high are called consoles and pianos 45 inches or there-about are called studios. Studio pianos are commonly found in schools and churches and are made with heavy rubber wheels so they can be rolled from room-to-room. You might also have an upright piano that is 50 inches or more in height. Most upright pianos are the old-fashioned type that went out of favor before the Second World War. Uprights regained some popularity in the ’80s, so manufacturers began to produce them again. Executors may find some of these newer uprights around, but generally when people say they have an “upright” piano, they are talking about the old-fashioned ones.

Grand pianos are classified by length measured from the cabinet in front of the keys to the farthest point in the back of the cabinet. Although terms like “baby grand,” “studio grand,” “parlor grand” and “concert grand” are common, the terms are too general to be of any use. Grands are properly identified by their make and model or by their size in feet and inches.

Now, let me address some of the frequently asked questions that I receive about estate pianos.

What’s my piano worth?

I usually respond to that question by asking, “What’s a car worth?” The simplest way to determine value is to call a piano dealer. If you’re lucky, the dealer may offer to buy your piano. If you’re not so lucky, you should call a qualified piano technician and have him or her assess the piano. You can find a tech at the website of the Piano Technician’s Guild.

Note that I said “assess,” not “appraise.” Unless a piano tech is actively engaged in buying and selling pianos, all he can do is guess at the value. And, guess he will. Piano techs have an opinion about everything, and no two opinions agree.

For a quick-price reality-check, go to eBay and search the brand of piano you are hoping to sell. If you can’t find your brand, just search for pianos in the musical-instrument category. When the search results come up, click the check-boxes that indicate “used” and “completed listings.” You’ll see a list of pianos with prices in red and green. The green prices represent pianos that actually sold, and the red prices are those that didn’t sell. You’ll also see how many bids each piano received. You’ll be shocked to see how many pianos sold for the opening bid of 99 cents. Name brand grand pianos sell for respectable prices, though.

If you’re determined to sell your piano privately, have your technician give you a written assessment that you can use to establish the quality and condition of your piano. Or, I’ll give you the age and a market valuation of your piano through WorthPoint.

How old is my piano?

No matter the make, pianos with decorative carving sell better than plain ones. The more intricate the decorations, the better.

The industry standard for determining the age of a piano is the “Pierce Piano Atlas.” Many libraries have one, and virtually everyone in the piano business has one. If you can’t get someone to date the piano for free, look up “Pierce Piano Atlas” online, and there are sites that will charge you a fee to look up the age.

Is my piano an antique?

Maybe, but that doesn’t make it worth anything. Pianos are like cars; they deteriorate with age. Old upright pianos are very common. When I had my shop in the ’80s and ’90s, I got calls every week from people who offered me their old piano for free if I would come get it. In most cases, I ended up charging them a fee to haul it to the dump.

Which pianos sell and which don’t?

There’s a buyer for almost everything but, in general, pianos with beautiful cabinetry sell well. Big pianos sound better than smaller pianos, so they usually sell better than smaller pianos. Other points being equal, cabinetry trumps sound. Every customer who ever said to me, “I don’t care how the piano looks, I just care how it sounds,” opted for nice cabinetry when it came to decision time. Ugly pianos don’t sell well, regardless of how wonderful they sound. The exception to this rule is musicians. Most of them are broke and would love to have a good-sounding piano for little or nothing.

Well-known brands like Steinway, Baldwin and Yamaha sell well. There are other pianos that are better than or equal to those three brands, but those three brands have more name recognition than most and are easier to sell.

How do I sell my piano?

Once you have an assessment and a valuation, advertise the piano for the amount of the valuation. Advertise locally; forget about eBay and such online sites. It costs too much to move a piano to sell it at a distance unless you have a really remarkable or rare piano. Place ads in the local newspaper, Pennysaver and Craigslist. Run the ad for a few weeks, and if it hasn’t sold, stop for a few weeks and run it again. The best times to sell a piano are September and October (back-to-school), November and December (Christmas) and March (piano-rental programs that started in September will usually expire in March, and renters may be on the lookout for a “good used piano”).

Where do I find a piano mover?

Pianos with major brand names will be easier to sell than others. This Yamaha studio upright has an edge on the rest of the pack.

Call a piano dealer; they know who the good piano movers are. Never, ever use a van line or household-goods mover. They will all swear to you that they know how to move pianos, and maybe someone in the company does know, but on the day they arrive to move your piano, that guy is never on the truck.

Can I move the piano myself?

No. Grand pianos require special equipment and know-how to move. Vertical pianos require a flat, four-wheeled furniture dolly and a cube van with strap-downs to move properly. The front legs on a vertical piano are decorative, and the wheels don’t roll well. If you try to move the piano and catch the front wheel on the carpet or door jamb, the leg will snap off and you’re looking at a repair bill that’s sometimes more than the value of the piano.

Where can I donate the piano?

The short answer is you can’t, usually. It used to be that most churches and private schools would accept piano donations. But, most of those institutions aren’t accepting run-of-the-mill pianos anymore. Look instead for a newly opened or “storefront” church to donate to. They are startups and need all the help they can get. If you have a grand piano in good condition or a high-quality name-brand piano, you might find a taker. If you’re going to donate a piano, get an appraisal first because there may be tax implications for the estate. Check with your tax advisor.

Those are the basics of selling an estate’s piano. If you simply can’t sell the piano, offer it for free to any taker who will haul it away. If no one wants it, even for free, then you’ll just have to pay to have it hauled to the dump. At that point what you have is a “white elephant,” and that’s no joke.

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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  • Very nicely written article, Wayne. I was plodding around, leaving my usual online breadcrumb trail, and ended up at WorthPoint as a divergence from my activities on eBay.

    As a musician of the untrained, non-professional, dabbling sort, I have long entertained the idea of acquiring a smallish grand piano, and you’re right — finding a lovely-sounding one would be imperative.

    My maternal grandparents had what I believe to have been a veritable upright. The cabinet was quite tall, even though I’m remembering it from the perspective of my youth. Flat-black, and in need of both cosmetic and aural makeover even then, I’d love to have it today. I don’t recall who the builder was.

    I’d thought, even quite recently, about training to become a piano tuner and technician, but I guess it’s probably best that I never pursued that whim. Pianos are such beautiful instruments, even the ‘ugly’ ones among them. Except where it might benefit those of us with shallower pockets who would love to have one, it’s saddening that the market for them is so ‘flat’.

    Bad puns aside, I don’t want to end on a ‘sour note’, so I’ll reiterate my compliment about the quality of your article. In the glut of inarguable mediocrity to be found in the ‘blogosphere’, it was a treat to read an authoritative, well-written piece. I have a feeling you possess an innate flair that largely obviates the need for keen editorial attention. Finding an online entry that didn’t pass scrutiny as being publication-ready while it actually reads as if a C+ 7th-Grade English student wrote it is refreshing. Nice.

  • Thanks for your kind words, Bill. I’m glad you enjoyed the article.

    Chances of finding a nice grand piano “for cheap” get better every day. I recently saw an eBay auction in which a name-brand mid-size European grand piano sold for an opening bid of 99 cents. Tragic for the seller, but a boon for the buyer. Of course, I’m sure it cost over $1,000 to have it shipped. Still a bargain, though.

    Good luck in your search. Keep in touch.

  • Kim Jean

    May I offer another alternative which will cause shudders to most piano afficianados, but is a practical reality: scrap the piano. Most older pianos have a very heavy piece of metal for the sounding board. The wood burns nicely, the strings and hinges can be scrapped, and then you’re left with a few small pieces of plastic to dispose of in your waste receptacle. It’s not pretty, but it beats hauling it to the dump.

  • Interesting article. I am one of those holding the the elephant in storage thanks to the generosity of a family member!

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