by Craig Brougher
When I saw the eBay ad for a beautifully refinished Louis XV Chickering Ampico grand and matching bench up for sale for $500, with the player intact, I realized what is beginning to happen to the player piano industry and what needs to be done about it. A day later I got a note from a friend who confirmed it and told me that he saw a Seeburg model E - "the all-purpose orchestrion" for sale also for $500. I asked myself, what is it that causes their value to plummet below what it would cost to simply move the instrument locally? Some people spend more than that to eat at a fancy restaurant.
Pianos are the epitome of man's musical and mechanical creativity. In every movie or TV show in which a fine home is pictured, what do you invariably see on the floor of their living room and then think?
(DUH... a pianer?)
And why is that? A grand piano represents a large investment because it represents man's finest work, appreciation, and artistry, and depicts its owner and his family. It represents the epitome of well-earned appreciation of talent, hard work, and attention to the finest details. A Reproducing Grand Piano not only "depicts" but is man's greatest musical achievement, mechanically speaking. It recreates man's greatest performances by some of the greatest performers who have ever lived! Of this there is no dispute or question. The capabilities of these great artists have been preserved to be re-performed LIVE on your own piano, in your own home, for as long as you own it, or practically speaking, as long as it's working properly. Remember -instruments with the exact same capability entertained music lovers and their music critics in concert halls of the greatest cities worldwide in the '20's and '30's. That was when the smallest details of a performance were noticed and elaborated upon. Today there's a problem with that.
This is NOT to diminish upright players either. Even a great old pumper player piano is still the perfect attraction to kids and grandkids, not to mention all the folks who love to sing and have fun. And then with both kinds of instruments is the inevitable musical education, where kids with inborn musical talent can watch the keys play and often pick up the knack of playing along by ear. "Heaven forbid anyone ever encourage something like that in a youngster!" Think of the utter destruction it could wreak in the guitar industry if it ever caught on as a substitute! But then, playing a piano well is a bit harder to learn than strumming to a vocal on a guitar, so in today's world, I think guitars will still be safe, but there's no comparison between the music they make. And the words to player songs are not X-rated either. Your kids can be allowed to actually read them off the roll. You don't have to worry about a long explanation or your promise to when they get old enough. Some are fun, some are beautiful, and are most often, great-great grand-pop classics! (Why, who would dare ever say a word against tunes like-'Barney Google,' for instance? So OK, go ahead and Google 'Barney' and see what I'm talking about-or, NOT!) The truth is, nothing is forever and that includes where we live and what we own. It's all going to find new owners someday and we want them to treasure it and to know what they really have, just like we did. That means we owe them more than just a picture and a price. They need a bit of heritage just like we did, in order to want it in the first place. Trouble is today, very few players, even (so-called) "rebuilt" ones, play anywhere close to the facility they once possessed. That's a shame too, because the modern rebuilder has never learned the one most basic truth in all playerdom-that being, "Leather rots from the bottom up, not the top down."
Now what does that have to do with the price of player pianos or peanuts from Peru, you ask? Simple. If a player doesn't play, or doesn't play well, it is for the most part a liability, not an asset! And players in which the rebuilder estimated the lifetime of the valve leather by inspecting its top surface are always the ones that don't play well! Granted, using lousy new leather is just as bad as leaving the old leather, as well as a dozen other mistakes, but not wanting to rebuild the leather valves is almost a "given" condition included with those other dozen things. Now why do I say that leather rots from the glue up, not from the top down?
What rots leather is called bacteria and the original leather was all vegetable-tanned. That means the leather itself has its own bacteria in it, not to mention that which was added by the hot hide glue when it was installed. The stink of old hide glue is caused by an overgrowth of that same bacteria increasing in its concentration. Bacteria isn't like most forms of life in that it can actually last for centuries and then when conditions like moisture and warmth and food (leather itself) is supplied it comes back to life and starts to grow.
The reason the surface of the leather is not as susceptible to rot is because air passing over the surface contains various molds (we call yeast) which counter bacteria. It's what leavens sourdough bread, for instance, but it will preserve leather by controlling bacteria. It's all part of the beautiful balance of nature. Naturally when the rot extends from the glued surface up to the top it eventually rots the whole thing, but it will always be seen that the leather is by far totally rotted at the bottom, and less and less rotted at the top.
This is particularly observable in reproducing rotary pumps whose inside flaps have glued-on leather seats against which the moveable flap operates. Surface inspection of a bellows' inside flaps will always be declared "successful" and, "We sure don't have to replace those. Why, they're as good as the day they were put in!" Well that is, until the glued-down leather seat is removed. "And what-do-ya-know-about-that? Why, it just pulled right up. Hmm. Didn't even leave anything solid that we'd have to chisel off and get tough with!" No, instead. All you need is a little water and a brush, the water soaks right through the rotten leather residue and the whole thing scrapes right off in just a few minutes, leaving a perfectly clean and smooth wooden surface. Amazing-seeing as how that leather looked brand new, on its top! Why it would have been "criminal" to replace it! Now how do you suppose that happened? And the moveable flap looks brand new on both sides, too. Hmm, now how do you suppose that happened? So let's think for a minute, now. How come that pump never put out the vacuum pressure or volume (cu. ft./minute) it was capable of? It was because those leather seats which rot from the bottoms up leak like sieves! Granted also, leather flaps which lay on the wood itself also rot faster than the parts of it which are exposed to air flow. And then it also depends on where the player spent its lifetime (in a dry or a humid environment), and how much it was played under what conditions. The same principle applies to all leather. Poppet valves likewise. Tough, solid leather remaining exposed accounts for very little because it relies on its glue joint at the bottom for its air tightness, anyway. The rest of the leather is still suede, meaning without an airtight backing it's going to leak. The pores in a leather skin are vertical so that valve must rely on its joint, and if the joint is rotten, the whole thing is rotten and it doesn't matter how great the surface looks to you. "It's still a hundred years old, guys! We need to learn to respect old age and retire it!" Just like the old timer who's over 80 now and only looks 40, but I guarantee you he won't be working like he did when he was 40. And neither will 100 year-old vegetable-tanned leather!
So that's the principle and it works every time it's tried. Don't say, it looks so good I think I'll just leave it there. Nobody will ever know, anyway. But in every case, they do find out. I won't mention all the do-overs I've gotten in the last 30 years or so, but with the exception of maybe 10% untouched pianos, they've ALL been do-overs, including two collector item reproducers from London, no less.
The reason players and reproducers no longer sell on-line is because of this very thing. There were so few rebuilders willing to do a thorough job in the past that at best the instrument plays well for the next 5-8 years and then begins a very steep decline into the inevitable graveyard of dead players. So when a buyer sees it for sale, he knows he somehow has to find a reliable restorer and get it all done over again.
So here's my suggestion-offer the buyer an option to see and hear it play, even if you have to put the video on a friend's website, and give them a link to that. Provide a dated magazine or something in your video to prove it's recent. Give the buyer the name of the rebuilder if possible and his/her contact information and when it was restored. And finally, tell those interested how much you have enjoyed that piano and all the memories it has provided for you, your family, children, grandchildren, and many friends, over the years. If that piano has truly been a member of your own family and endeared itself to everyone, make it known to the rest of us. Then charge what it is worth, and if that's $500 and not even a friendly thought goes with that, so be it! What you tell them about it is going to determine how it sells. Everybody wants a family member they can rely on and that they can listen to endlessly and thoroughly enjoy. If you enjoy telling them about it, believe me, they will enjoy owning it and will think of you, too.
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Since "Player-Care" is an internet business, I prefer that we correspond via E-Mail (click here to fill out the 'Request Form'). However, if I'm not in the middle of some other activity, you can reach me at 732-840-8787. But please understand that during the hours from 8AM-5PM EST (Mon-Sat), I'm generally quite busy. So, I probably won't answer the phone. If you get the answering machine, please leave a detailed message stating the reason for your call. Also, repeat your name and phone number clearly and distinctly. By necessity, I prioritize everything in my life. And, if you call and just leave your name and number, and ask me to call you back, it might be a day or two before I return your call. Why? Because I don't know why you want me to call and I might not be prepared to assist you in an effective and efficient manner. If you leave me an E-Mail address (which I prefer), spell it out phonetically. The more you do to help me, the more I can help you in return. Don't rush. You have four minutes to record your message.
407 19th Ave, Brick, NJ, 08724
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