NEW YORK – The upright piano was the original home entertainment center. Before the rise of the television, the hi-fi stereo and the radio, family and friends gathered around a piano to while the evening away. The upright, or vertical design, which arrived in the early 1800s, effectively democratized the piano; it was more compact and less expensive than a grand piano, the case for which concealed a horizontally-oriented arrangement of strings that demanded far more floor space than most middle-class people could provide in their homes.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, pianos were a must-have and uprights were seemingly everywhere. Back then, the piano wasn’t just a musical instrument, it was a status symbol – a sign that the family who owned it was prosperous and respectable. Fast-forward about 120 years, and things are starkly different. Long since displaced by screens, the piano has been reduced to a tool for making music. And, speaking of reduced, we seem to have less and less room in our rooms in general. The upright piano, once treasured for its space-saving qualities, now seems too big. Homeowners forced to choose between fitting a couch or an upright in the living room almost always pick the couch.
Countless owners of antique, once-adored upright pianos who hoped to hand them on to appreciative new owners have met with disappointment. That’s why you’ve seen so many notices online touting free pianos for anyone willing to haul them away, and why you might have spotted the odd old instrument, its case sporting an exuberant paint job it certainly didn’t have when it left the factory, parked in a high-traffic touristy area, tempting passersby to play it. Run-of-the-mill upright pianos, even those that have been well-maintained and have avoided devolving into what piano technician John Dorr describes as a “piano-shaped object,” go wanting.
Of course, this is not universally true. Some upright pianos remain in demand, and will always have takers willing to spend hefty sums to acquire them. What follows is a look at the fortunate few, and what makes them stand out.
As with anything that goes to auction, provenance matters. Upright pianos that were owned by famous people usually command solid prices. A circa-1902 Howard Cabinet Grand J upright piano owned and played by Liberace on stage achieved $30,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2020 at Julien’s Auctions. The fact that it looked exactly like the sort of upright Liberace should own must have played a role in the final price. It was painted red and white, festooned with tassels, rhinestones and rope and had Liberace’s name, in red, above the keys in the place where the piano’s brand name would typically appear.
Another instrument that performed nicely at auction was a Behr Brothers upright that had belonged to jazz musician Lionel Hampton, who evidently gave it to his road manager, William Bergacs, from whose estate it was consigned in April 2016. The piano, decorated with Asian landscape scenes, sold for $4,100 at Saco River Auction.
Celebrities who aren’t known for their piano skills can nevertheless move bidders when their uprights head to the auction block. Actress Doris Day’s father was an organist who urged his little daughter to learn to play. The girl ignored his pleas, preferring to dance instead. When Day’s red lacquer upright with matching bench, maker unidentified, came up for sale at Julien’s in April 2020, it realized $35,000 against an estimate of $2,000-$3,000.
Steinway & Sons is the golden brand name within the realm of pianos and has been for almost two centuries. While the American company might be best known for its grand pianos and its art-case pianos, it produces uprights as well. Provided they are properly cared for, antique upright Steinways earn strong prices at auction. An unadorned circa-1890 example with an ebonized case sold for $7,000 plus the buyer’s premium against an estimate of $800-$1,200 in September 2021 at William Smith Auctions, and a sleek-looking Steinway Regency model F upright in blonde walnut wood, dating to 1950 and restored with Steinway replacement parts, modestly outpaced its high estimate to realize $7,500 plus the buyer’s premium at Billings in September 2018.
An 1882 upright Steinway, clearly designed to look as good as it sounded, attained €12,000 (about $12,000) at Setdart Auction House in March 2021. Its Napoleon III-style case featured marquetry medallions and an embarrassment of gilt bronze covering a case made entirely of fine woods. In addition, its internal harp was made from iron.
A notable manufacturer that is no longer with us is the J.P. Seeburg Piano Co., founded by its Swedish American namesake, Justus Percival Sjoberg. The company is probably most famous for its jukeboxes; the coin-op machine that Arthur “Fonz” Fonzarelli infamously thumped on the sitcom Happy Days was a Seeburg Model HF100G. But earlier in its existence, Seeburg made equally magnificent musical instruments such as a 1915 model E upright player piano with a mandolin attachment, flute pipes and a quartered oak case. An example attained $4,800 plus the buyer’s premium at Dan Morphy Auctions in September 2022.
Unique instruments produced by artisans can draw strong bids at auction. A 1928 Stultz & Bauer upright piano customized by Jessica and Jerry Farrell and rechristened as an Adirondack piano, graced with an oil painting of an all-bear band jamming in the forest, realized $16,250 plus the buyer’s premium at Blanchards Auction Service in October 2021.
Equally of interest is a Manxman upright piano by British designer Mackay Hugh Baillie Scott, aka M.H. Baillie Scott. Made in conjunction with John Broadwood & Sons of London, the Manxman represented a more elegant take on the design of the upright piano. An example dating to between 1905 and 1910 sold at Rago Arts and Auction Center in January 2022 for $4,000 plus the buyer’s premium.
Pieces that handsomely capture earlier stages in the evolution of the upright piano can win notable (pardon the pun) sums. The innovation that freed the upright to become a mass-market success came from Englishman John Hawkins. It was the sort of contribution that makes you say, “Hey, I could have thought of that,” but history shows that no one made it a reality before Hawkins bothered. Instead of placing the naked vertical piano harp at or above the level of the keyboard, he dropped it to the floor and lowered the case to conceal it. Iterations of the instrument that point the unprotected, asymmetrical piano harp toward the ceiling are unusually tall, gaining them the nickname of “giraffe piano.”
An antique giraffe piano featuring a painted wood case, extensive applied carved gilt wood elements and an Egyptian-style frame support, its back left leg broken and its keyboard having some non-working keys, sold for $5,500 plus the buyer’s premium in January 2020 at Roland NY. Also, a circa-1845 upright piano with an exposed harp and a rosewood case, the work of Frederick Beale and John Steward, achieved £20,000 (about $23,000) plus the buyer’s premium in May 2016 at Dreweatts Donnington Priory.
Lastly, there are uprights that may as well be called art-case pianos, though they might predate that phenomenon by decades. An 1853 confection by Berlin-based artisan F. A. Klein that takes the form of a lyre, a shape that hides the piano harp and houses the lower pedals. This markedly elegant piece sold for €9,500 (about $9,500) in July 2021 at Kunstauktionshaus Schlosser.
The aforementioned Dreweatts Donnington Priory also presented a May 2016 auction that had a wealth of gorgeous antique upright pianos. Particular standouts included a circa-1800 satinwood and mahogany upright square piano by Irish manufacturer William Southwell, which tripled its high estimate to realize £16,000 (about $18,200) plus the buyer’s premium; and a mahogany-veneered upright created in Paris in 1813 by Sebastien Mercier, its style deemed a dog kennel piano because of the distinctive arch at the bottom of the case. It, too, beat its estimate to sell for £7,500 (about $8,600) plus the buyer’s premium.