6 Ways to Identify Valuable Vintage Sheet Music
Sheet music is everywhere. Tens of thousands of songs and millions of copies were sold in the 20th Century alone.
I love it when I see an old piano that is missing its bench, because I know that somewhere in the house is a stack of under-valued vintage sheet music, waiting to be found. Finding the stack and sorting the treasures from the trash is easy if you know what to look for. Listed in the following article are six tips for finding and identifying valuable vintage sheet music.
Vintage Sheet Music is Everywhere
Vintage sheet music is ubiquitous. Tens of thousands of songs and millions of copies were sold in the 20th Century alone. Gene Utz, author of Collecting Paper: An Identification and Value Guide, states that in 1910, the popular songs “Down by the Old Mill Stream” and “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” sold over 5 million copies each. It was not uncommon for a popular song to sell hundreds of thousands of copies. Unlike most other ephemera, sheet music was kept and stored for decades. These treasures can be found at estate sales, yard sales, flea markets, and auctions. Collectors can also find interesting pieces online and in antique stores, but at higher prices.
Who Collects Sheet Music?
Most sheet music collectors fall into four categories:
- Those who collect song sheets for the sake of the music. Most of us have strong preferences for the music we grew up with, and are not particularly interested in music old enough to be in the public domain. But, there are cohorts of musicians and audiences with strong preferences for old music: Ragtime, Delta Blues, early Country & Western, Bluegrass & Old-Time, Dixieland, Shape-note hymns, and more. Much of this early music has been compiled into audio anthologies, and all of it (at one time) had some form of published sheet music.
- Devotees of a particular historical period. Aficionados of the Antebellum South may be drawn to Stephen Foster or Minstrel songs; “Roaring Twenties” enthusiasts may be enticed by Ragtime or Dixieland song sheets.
- Cover art collectors. Color lithography became commercially viable in America about 1840, and by the early Twentieth Century some of the artwork and lithography on sheet music cover pages was stunning. In some cases, the artwork was better than the song. Framed sheet music artwork is often found in collector’s homes.
- Crossover collectors; i.e., those who collect something else entirely, but add related items to fill-out their collections. Civil War collectors may be enticed by songs of the war, like “Lorena”; muscle car enthusiasts might be interested in early 1960s car song-sheets like “Little Deuce Coupe”, “409”, or “Dead Man’s Curve”. Collectors of Art Deco furnishings are enticed by Art Deco styled cover art. Train collectors often collect train songs.
Six Ways to Identify Valuable Sheet Music
Like all other collectibles, “supply & demand” rules apply. In sheet music, rarity is king. Unfortunately, that means that the music sheets you are most likely to encounter are the ones that aren’t worth very much. Popular songs sung by famous artists may have been printed by the tens of thousands. It’s always a pleasure to find such a copy, but it won’t be worth a lot. The rule of thumb is “if it was popular, it’s probably not rare.”
Popular songs sung by famous artists may have been printed by the tens of thousands. It’s always a pleasure to find such a copy, but it won’t be worth a lot. This particular piece by Elvis sold for $6.42 in September 2014.
Consequently, the age of a piece has direct bearing on its value. Experts say that you can ballpark the age of sheet music by checking the following:
- How big is the sheet? Prior to World War One, standard music sheets were 11”x14” inches. After the War, they were 9”x12”.
- What’s the copyright date of the song? Does the song have a recorded version? Publishing usually occurs after the copyright date and roughly concurrent with the recording.
- Does the sheet have a printed price? Prices didn’t begin to appear on music sheets until the late 19th Century.
- Is it a first edition? As with books, first editions may be more valuable. Check the copyright date to confirm; multiple dates indicate that the sheet is into reprints.
- Does the publisher’s address list a zip code? Zip codes weren’t in use until 1962 in the U.S.
- Is there an International Standard Music Number (ISMN) printed on the sheet? ISMNs began to be used in 1993.
An item’s condition is important relative to the intent of the collector. For historical collectors, rarity trumps condition; for artwork collectors, condition is a primary concern. Also, autographed sheets sell well, as with other autographed collectibles.
The Big Bopper signed sheet music for “Chantilly Lace” (1958) sold for $2800 in April 2015.
So, what’s the price range for vintage sheet music? Online, auction lots of run-of-the-mill sheets can be had for about $10 for two dozen sheets, or $3-$4 for more desirable songs. At live auctions, $2-$5 is common for a box-lot. Autographed sheets and rare copies vary, depending on the market. On the high end, a sheet might sell for $1,000 or so.
The best reference for checking the value of sheet music is WorthPoint’s Worthopedia, because you can research the historical values of any given sheet across multiple platforms. For current market supply of a particular title, check eBay’s current listings and completed listings. For sell-through on a particular title, compare a sheet’s total completed eBay listings to its sold eBay listings.
Wayne Jordan is a Virginia-licensed auctioneer, Certified Personal Property Appraiser and Accredited Business Broker. He has held the professional designations of Certified Estate Specialist; Accredited Auctioneer of Real Estate; Certified Auction Specialist, Residential Real Estate and Accredited Business Broker. He also has held state licenses in Real Estate and Insurance. Wayne is a regular columnist for Antique Trader Magazine, a WorthPoint Worthologist (appraiser) and the author of two books. For more info, check out Wayne’s website at resaleretailing.com or visit Wayne’s blog.
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