Play it again, Sam. The time-honored piano is an instrument gaining in popularity and emerging as a collectible. For example, a 5-foot 7-inch Steinway grand piano that cost $6,000 in 1975 now commands double that amount in mint condition. Even a "basket case" vintage Steinway that needs major rebuilding is worth at least $2,000.
Among less expensive pianos, a Sohmer console that cost $800 in 1975 now fetches $1,500. The Baldwin Acrosonic, a quality spinet piano, was priced at $400 about 40 years ago and lately has brought $1,400. A Kimball spinet that sold for $600 in 1975 now is worth $1,800.
Grand pianos generally appreciate more than verticals, and higher quality pianos increase more in value than less expensive ones. While Steinways tend to go up in price the most, many others also appreciate or at least hold their value.
"Grand pianos have sort of become a yuppie symbol the last several years, much like a Volvo in the driveway," observed Marty Flinn, district manager for San Bruno, Calif.-based Sherman Clay & Co., the nation's biggest piano chain.
Of course, not everyone is getting into the piano market strictly for the snob appeal or collectible potential. Some buyers do intend to play -- if not now, eventually.
Be careful if buying an older piano. The fact that an instrument is old doesn't necessarily indicate it's an antique. Rarity and basic quality are determining factors in value. Fine tone from a solid and attractive cabinet is the goal.
"Everyone may assume that grandmother's piano is an antique worth thousands of dollars, but, if it's just an old upright 80 to 100 years old, it hasn't gained much in value," said Ronald Berry, president of the Kansas City, Mo.-based Piano Technicians Guild, a 3,500-member trade organization. "There are a few with elaborately painted art deco cases which may have improved their value, but not many."
Old pianos can mean trouble if they haven't been properly maintained or are simply worn out. It can cost a lot of money to get them back into shape, so you must be sure of what you're getting.
"When buying any used piano, you absolutely must have it checked out by a technician before you buy, since there are a lot of expensive problems that are not obvious," said Larry Fine, a piano expert in Boston who wrote "The Piano Book."
The new-piano market, hurt by escalating prices from rising labor costs, has been in a sales decline the past decade. And while older pianos have risen in price, most still cost less than their brand-new counterparts. A low price for a new spinet or small console piano would be $1,200, while a quality vertical starts at $3,500. Decent grand pianos start at $8,000, while Steinway grands now range from $20,000 to nearly $60,000.
Bosendorfer and Beckstein are other high-quality names that cost even more than Steinway. Asian pianos are considerably less expensive, led by well-known names such as Yamaha and Kawai.
When buying a piano, look not only at price but at the reputation of its maker and at how well the particular instrument will meet your needs. Don't be bashful about playing the piano you're considering, or walking around the room to listen as someone else plays it. Whether a new or old piano, take quality into account.