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The market for used pianos dries up

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Sid of Sid Siff Piano sits with his grandfather's piano in his Amherst studio Friday.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    Sid of Sid Siff Piano sits with his grandfather's piano in his Amherst studio Friday. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/><br/>Piano restorer Sid Siff of Amherst with a piano once owned by his grandfather. Siff says pianos are no longer a gathering place in American households, and as a result the market for used instruments is drying up.

    JOSH KUCKENS
    JOSH KUCKENS

    Piano restorer Sid Siff of Amherst with a piano once owned by his grandfather. Siff says pianos are no longer a gathering place in American households, and as a result the market for used instruments is drying up. Purchase photo reprints »

  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>Sid of Sid Siff Piano sits with his grandfather's piano in his Amherst studio Friday.
  • JOSH KUCKENS<br/>JOSH KUCKENS<br/><br/>Piano restorer Sid Siff of Amherst with a piano once owned by his grandfather. Siff says pianos are no longer a gathering place in American households, and as a result the market for used instruments is drying up.

When Sid Siff began working on pianos in the early 1980s, he would find free uprights, recondition them and then sell them for $1,000 or more — easily. The small workshop off his home in Amherst was often crowded with as many as 10 instruments at a time.

“I couldn’t do it fast enough,” said Siff, a piano technician who counts Hampshire College among his clients. “It made sense because they were really nicely well-made pianos that had lots of really top-quality workmanship and beautiful cabinets.”

Today, the only piano in his workshop is a Baldwin baby grand passed down from his grandfather. Siff is restoring it for his own family.

Piano technicians, brokers and movers say the piano market in western Massachusetts is in flux. Once a staple of home entertainment, the instruments have been supplanted by other distractions and sources of music.

The situation isn’t confined to western Massachusetts.

An article in The New York Times in July noted that piano sales peaked in 1910 when 365,000 new instruments were sold in the United States. A century later, in 2011, the number of new pianos sold had dropped to 41,000.

Even for people who want a piano in their homes, purchasing a used model is not necessarily a good deal. Most of the pianos that Siff and other restorers reconditioned in the 1980s were manufactured between the 1890s and the 1930s, a period that’s considered the heyday of piano manufacture in the U.S. But such instruments may no longer be in peak condition — and not worth refurbishing.

“It costs a lot of money to replace the parts,” said Bill Wallace, a Northampton-based piano tuner and occasional piano broker who has worked for Smith and Amherst colleges as well as concert venues throughout the Pioneer Valley. “So even though there’s sentimental value a lot of times, the technician has to make an informed decision for the client and say, Look, it’s time for it to go even though it was grandma’s piano and we hate to see it go.”

Pianos in need of homes

For people who want to sell their pianos, the situation can be even more challenging. With her children grown, Flora Majumder of Northampton decided to free up space in her home by selling the Lester baby grand piano the family bought — used — in 1968. She says that when she asked her piano technician what he thought she could sell it for, he told her that she would have to pay to have it removed.

“I have an emotional attachment to the piano and I couldn’t quite bear to actually part with it,” said Majumder, a retired music teacher. She called Wallace for a second opinion, and when he told her that he thought the piano had one more life in it she decided to advertise it in the Gazette’s classified section.

Last spring, after two rounds of ads, Majumder succeeded in finding a new home for her piano. But her first piano technician’s evaluation proved accurate: She not only gave the piano away but also agreed to pay half the moving costs, approximately $175.

Finding new homes for aging pianos has become so problematic that there’s now a website to help: www.pianoadoption.com. It offers dozens of listings from people around the country looking to find new homes for their old pianos.

Landfill fodder

As many pianos from the early 20th century reach the point where they are no longer worth repairing, more and more of them are being consigned to the landfill, according to Wallace and others in the industry.

Jimmy Burgoff of Pelham, who runs a moving company that specializes in pianos, often takes the instruments to the dump at his clients’ request. He said some owners are sad to see their pianos end up there. But more often, he said, they’re relieved they’ve found someone who can take the piano away. He charges his usual moving fee (which starts at $175) plus the landfill disposal fee, generally in the $40 to $65 range.

Burgoff, who is also a musician, said he doesn’t mind disposing of pianos that have “lived a useful life.” “Others, it’s sad because they were neglected,” he continued. “I never take a piano to the dump that is worthy of restoration. I will do my best to find it a new home.”

The pianos that fall into that category are generally from high-end manufacturers like Steinway, Baldwin and Mason & Hamlin, according to both Siff and Wallace.

Wallace said it can cost up to $15,000 to entirely rebuild a grand piano and slightly less to rebuild an upright piano. Less extensive repairs are more affordable but still can easily exceed the value of older, non-premium pianos. There is less of a market for restored upright pianos, according to Siff, so most of the pianos that end up in landfills are uprights.

Digital replacements

In addition to losing their traditional place at the center of homes, older used pianos are facing competition from new models that can be manufactured much more cheaply, as well as digital pianos and keyboards. The sound quality of good digital pianos has increased dramatically over the last few decades, experts say, and a decent one can be purchased for $2,000 or less.

Majumder replaced the baby grand she gave away with a portable Yamaha digital keyboard that cost around $1,500 — and has the added appeal of requiring no tuning or upkeep.

“I try not to get too emotional about it,” said Siff about the loss of pianos in U.S. homes. “Times change, people change. It’s not really a gathering point anymore in the home. It’s much more sad to see a piano that’s in the home and not being used at all, just sitting there collecting dust.”

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