GUIDE TO UK PIANO AUCTION
By Yiran Feng - updated on Jul.6 2022
This was the 3rd time I’ve been to the piano auction, since COVID in 2020 the auction has been all happening online.
I’m a designer with industrial design engineering background at Royal College of Art and Imperial College, as well as an amateur piano player, I’m particularly interested in the makings of pianos and all technical aspects behind them. The piano auction company was established since 1984, not until recently I have the motivation to buy a grand piano for my fiancée as she has more performance practice needs than merely as a teaching equipment.
The piano auction in London is quite unique and not a common sight in either EU or North America, so it is a great chance to acquire a piano with very reasonable price. However to successfully purchase a piano you desire at an auction, there's many questions you'd like to ask first.
*Please note, this article I wrote only applies to the UK market and market condition may not apply to other countries.
Shigeru Kawai SK2, the piano I won from the auction
Let’s start with the most obvious question: what’s the difference of buying a piano from auction and from a piano dealership. There’s a lot to talk about but for now, I’ll start with piano price depreciation.
Like new cars, when a brand-new piano come out of the shop, the value instantly drops. Most people who buy piano always wonder, how much will my piano worth after 10 years, shall I treat it as an investment? On the other hand, used-piano seekers always wonder, what price is a fair price.
I have created the following table based on research and real-life experience. Note that this table only applies to acoustic piano, digital piano will depreciate much faster.
Acoustic piano price depreciation table
5 yrs or less
55 - 75%
80 - 90%
50 - 70%
70 - 85%
45 - 65%
65 - 80%
30 - 45%
55 - 75%
25 - 40%
50 - 65%
20 - 35%
Reconditioned / Restored
15 - 30%
Reconditioned / Restored
60 - 100
10 - 15%
Reconditioned / Restored
This table is only a rough guidance, exception can happen.
The table applies for most popular brands, lesser known brand may have worse depreciation
*The figures for auction include additional 24% (premium + VAT) on most items, except a few that will have additional 20% VAT if the seller is a company. Restored old piano do not count for those numbers.
**The figures are based on the current price of the equivalent model (not original price, taking into consideration of inflation and other factors). Personal observation over the years from a variety of dealers & market prices, as well as auction results were analyzed. Assuming similar decent condition with no major cosmetic or functional defect, but including action wear & tear for non-restored pianos. A further +/- 5% that could contribute to worse or better condition, or refurbishment.
*** For 15 – 30 yrs or even older Steinways the values are more retained than other brands, consider 5 – 10% more.
**** For 50 years or older piano, upright piano would depreciate 5% further than a grand piano.
Other factors that affect piano condition
Though value of used pianos is determined primarily by condition, not age, the table above would apply to averagely well-maintained piano over the years from a common household. If a 50 years old piano is rarely used, it may has better condition than a 10 years old heavily used one. A school piano can be trashed after just a few years. See later section for spotting the wear and tear.
Special cases can happen, or luck
Sometimes, the auction results maybe surprising due to other factors such as brand recognition.
In June auction there’s a Baldwin Model L ( c. 1998 the very last made in US ones ) in great condition sold for a hammered price of £3,500 ( £4,340 after premium + VAT ). The low price is very likely due to perceived value as few people in the UK know Baldwin (not to mention new Baldwin are made in China now). This US-made model is considered legendary and at this condition it can easily go over $15,000 or more in US. One dealer in the UK is selling a much older one for approx. £14,000.
During each auction, you would pray that the piano you want the most doesn’t end up at a high hammer price. Occasionally, a few pianos do end up lower than estimate price range. With more research and knowledges I mentioned below, next time you may also find an underpriced treasure.
If you want to hire a technician to come to auction viewing, it will be wise to prepare a spread sheet and decide the pianos you will be focusing on and give prioritization. To fully inspect one grand piano, it may take the technician around 20 minutes. Bear in mind the technician could charge you based on hour rates.
If you have studied enough technical aspects of piano constructions and experienced a few rounds of auctions, you can of course go by yourself.
I’ve also listed a few things to watch for.
Important points to pay attention for
Sometimes the piano may come with additional systems installed, they maybe value-adding or a trouble, so be careful about the following aspects, as they shall be taken into consideration when you prepare your bidding amount limit.
Most modern piano manufacturers offer silent system ( basically a digital piano mode which stops hammer hitting the string and sensor will be detecting the movement instead ). Silent system typically add cost to the standard piano model.
Other than Yamaha’s Disklavia or Steinway Spirio. Sometime you can see a player system installed, usually by PianoDisc. They evolved from using floppy disk, to CD and now Bluetooth. This however, need to be thoroughly checked. With proper initial installation by professionals, the system should not damage the piano. However, the previous owner may have been using it frequently for many years which equals a professional pianist constantly playing, the action may be worn down significantly even being maintained. (they will feel light and not good for high-level classical music perfomance)
Colour matters, black usually has higher resell value compared to other colours, so expect higher price for simliar model / condition. Polished Ebony will always be more expensive than a satin mahogany. Although sometimes polished mahogany ( they cost more when buying a brand-new piano! ) may show up and equally popular as black, other colours would usually result in final price being lower. By pure experience the price difference may be well over £1000! White colour on the other hand, has a decade long debate of resell value. Nonetheless, white pianos are still very hot as many families want to match their interior decoration, and they are hard to come by ( good brands ) in auction.
Potential repair cost
Anything from tuning to squeaky pedal, interior cleaning or action regulation, keep in mind that those will cost money for a technician to come fix. Averagely a competent technician in the UK may charge £500 for a day’s work. Major on-site repair may take 2 – 3 days. Serious restoration such as soundboard or bridge repair may cost a fortune. If the estimate price of the piano is very low and condition is bad, think twice before you have to send it to workshop for major renovation, unless of course, you want to buy it as a furniture.
Certain brand, especially Fazoli and newer Bösendorfer are highly sought after ( marketing, brand image, etc. ) . So the auction result may end up way higher than the estimated price range. Pay attention not to exceed your maximum budget, the cost-effectiveness will quickly fade. On the other side, Schimmel usually end up lower than Steinways of similar size and performance. For similar cost
( £25,000 est. ) people would rather buy an old Steinway Model B rather than a much newer Schimmel K230, right? After all, there are more people than you think who want the front logo 🙄. These are great deal, though, if condition especially tone is excellent.
Visual and playing check
Like a car’s milage, the piano’s condition would deteriorate if under heavy use without regular maintenance, here a quick list of checks can be performed. Tone and Action are particularly important.
Check low, mid and treble range, play something as simple as Clair de lune and Chopin Nocturnes, Op. 27-2 can quickly reveal the quality of the tone. (richness, complexity, resonance, etc.) Most of the time tone could instantly tell how much the piano would worth.
Is it normal, too light? too stiff? slack? How is the responsiveness overall, and repetition speed. Pay attention that certain restoration work on Blüthner may still keep old Blüthner Patent action which feel different compared to the standard modern roller action (much worse repetition). Explanation video
For European brands like Bechstein, Bösendorfer & Steinway, original Renner branded action shall give you further confidence on quality. For Kawai pianos, be aware that Millennium III action has been used since 2004 ( GL, GX , SK grand pianos ) and the touch feel different from a Renner action, able to achieve higher repitition speed. The ABS-Carbon fibre action is now proven over the decades and resist environmental change better than the tranditional pure wooden action ( One less risk factor when buying a used piano ).
Pay extra attention that a heavily used piano will have light action ( even maintained well ) which may be an impediment of high-level classical music playing due to lack of control
( Jazz players may find it great though ) and may not be good for student practicing. A noticeable number of pianos in auction will have ‘light’ actions (even some restored ones), while some of the 1970 - 1980s pianos's action still feel new, which is an indication that they were less used ( probably sit idle in a home ). Action can be replaced of course, but cost money. Nontheless, every player may have different opinions on preferred action. Explanation video
If you want to study further on certain topics, there are plenty of articles online.
Key conditions, alignment & gap, plastic or ivory
Rust level on the string ( isn’t usually a concern unless very heavy )
Any crack or pressure ridge on Soundboard
Damper position ( distance to the string, is it normal )
Pinblock / Pins – has any pin being replaced?
Bridge – is there any crack developing next to the pin
( caused by dry condition in previous location )
Take repair cost for any damage into consideration for your bidding / selection strategy! Minor repair may still be worth it, think twice about major fault.
Piano brands and models
It is rather important that you know what you are buying, and how much you would pay for the piano you really love. On the other hand, you want to quickly eliminate the brands/models you don’t prefer, so not wasting too much time on the viewing day. So, spend enough time studying common models shows up in the used market is highly recommended. After all it’s still a hefty investment, you may not be able to test all pianos at shops yourself, but it can be easily done with YouTube channel reviews, just need a good pair of speakers or headphone so you can hear the tone clearly.
For anyone who are interested and want to dive deep into piano brands and sound of different models, I would recommend those YouTube channels, as those constantly shows up when I research various piano models.
This Toronto music school / dealer’s channel has a plethora of piano reviews which covers both digital and acoustic. There have been many valuable comparisons such as Kawai GX2 vs Yamaha C2X, GX2 vs Boston GP178, K300 vs U1, Estonia L190 vs SK3. You can know all the difference in details when you face decisions among models shows up in auction. Personally, I simply enjoy learning different piano’s sounds from different manufacturing techniques.
A very good place for a variety of acoustic piano reviews. In depth analysis for action and tones for many popular models can be found, including Blüthner which shows up a lot in auctions. The “Bösendorfer VS Fazioli VS Steinway” video is particularly interesting. Comparison videos like SK2 vs SK5 vs SK7 would provide insight of size impact on piano tones.
American piano dealer & educator, though most pianos featured there are for US market, you can find many models that’s rarely shown in other channels, such as Baldwin, New York Steinways or even Erard. The channel also features some advice and tips for the miscellaneous topics about piano.
UK piano dealer with a lot's of videos showing restored grand piano and indepth mechanism and tone comparison. There's a lot of interesting models and explanation on action component like hammers. Quite informative on restoration and recondition processes.
And finally … the auction battle plan
It’s time to flex your Excel skills 😉 The auction catalogue will be published 3 weeks prior to the viewing, so start your draft early Focus on the brand/model that catches your eyes only and ignore the rest. If not so sure, simply search the piano model on YouTube and find some comparison reviews. Though, bear in mind the actual piano in the auction may not be in ideal condition and require on site verification, they may not sound as brilliantly as in the review videos due to various conditions
Be sure to request condition reports from the company for specific ones you will be focusing on, at least the report might alert you something you may not be aware of.
Last but not least, make sure you choose appropriate size of the piano for your room. I won’t elaborate on piano placement here as that’s another big topic, but you might have headache if you bought a 7-foot grand for a small living room without additional sound dampening measures.
Just a few examples of my spread sheets, before and after viewing. as you can see my shortlist become much simpler in the 3rd auction attempt. Eliminate the ones you dont want quickly, based on budget and other important factors you care about.
1st attempt: 2021 DEC
Lost on the amazing Grotian Steinweg c.1983 in the last moment (online bidding)
2nd attempt: 2022 APR
Lost on a good Schimmel K208 c.1985 (absentee bidding)
3rd attempt: 2022 JUN
You will eventually succeed with perseverance and clear mind
If you don’t want to experience nervous online bidding, commission / absentee bidding is a good option. There’s a catch of course, the auction is going with Lot order numbers. If you bid for multiple pianos and win the first one, you’ll not bid on the later ones. (unless you tick buy all the winnings).
Keep in mind the buyers may also come from outside the UK, so competition is high for certain models. Historically speaking, 80 - 90% of the time the hammer price will still fall within the official estimate range. There are times it goes over or under but people usually don’t lose their sanity in the last second. ( unless for certain Fazioli or Bösendorfer, you know… )
Finally, for most pianos, there is certain level of bids limit one can give for high chance of winning if you prioritize candidates nicely. This depends highly on past experience and analytical practice. Strategy is important
In short, my summary for the piano auction is...
Analysis, Strategy, Patience, Luck
If you need help, we may be able to offer advice on model selection and bidding strategy.
Piano size, placement and all other concerns can be addressed.