Playing the piano was once considered a natural extension of the education of the well-bred, and a refined sense of culture, intellect and affluence continue to be the connotations associated with owning this classical instrument. A high-end piano is a luxury collectible that is enjoying something of a comeback, as more people incorporate one into their homes, for both its recreational and display value.
“The timeless appearance, exceptional sound and precise touch of a well-built piano revaluates any room in which it stands, and can give its owner lifelong pleasure,” says Charles Wegner, a manager at the 150-year-old Grotrian Piano Company, which has created pianos played by renowned musicians such as Clara Schumann, Paul Hindemith and Ivo Pogorelic.
Grotrian is one of the names on a list that includes manufacturers such as Steinway, Bösendorfer, Blüthner and Bechstein – companies that have been making grand pianos for the past century or more. Typically measuring up to five feet in length and weighing up to 500 kilograms, the hulking grand piano is favoured by serious collectors for its splendour and by professional musicians for its sound quality. The device uses gravity to give the player more control over its mechanical components – from the keys that your fingers depress to the hammer that strikes the strings to create a desired sound.
The other main type of piano is the upright or vertical iteration, which weights up to 250kg, is more compact at three feet and typically costs less. While a well-tuned machine can sound as good as a grand piano, the upright relies entirely on its springs. Even if these are perfectly regulated, they cannot match the effect of gravity to perfectly reset the mechanical components in the long term. That said, upright pianos are more suited to smaller spaces and can be customised to make for a striking collectible.
At the height of its popularity in the 1800s and early 1900s, the piano was a common sight in most well-to-do homes, especially in Europe. Grand pianos graced the drawing rooms of the wealthy, while members of the middle class invested in an upright instrument. Gathering around the piano for an evening recital by a family member or dancing to its music at a ball were common forms of entertainment.
Music publishers reproduced works by Mozart, Beethoven and Chopin specifically so that amateur pianists could try their hand at the popular pieces of the day in the comfort of their homes. The social importance of the piano comes through beautifully in major works of fiction from the 19th century. In Thackeray's Vanity Fair, Captain Dobbin expresses his admiration for the novel's tragic heroine, Amelia, by buying back the beloved instrument her family was forced to sell; in Little Women, an ailing Beth is surrounded by the things she cherishes most: her kittens and a piano; and the high point of Jane Austen's Pride and Prejudice is when Mr Darcy falls in love all over again as Eliabeth Bennet helps his sister with her sheet music. In fact, playing a duet on the piano was considered a most respectable way for couples to spend time during their courtship.
The decline of the piano is often attributed to the financial constraints brought about by the world wars and the Great Depression of 1929, as well as technological progress, with the phonograph, radio and cheaper electronic keyboards replacing the piano as a must-have. “It may have declined, but I don’t believe that the appeal of a piano ever fully went away – we have been busy making pianos constantly at the highest level for the past 160 years. But, yes, there is definitely some kind of renaissance,” says Paul Leverett, director of Piano Restorations. The United Kingdom-based, family-run enterprise specialises in rebuilding pianos, and has worked on instruments used by pianists and conductors such as Andrew Lloyd Webber, Barry Wordsworth and even The Beatles.
“I think people are now becoming tired of technology and want to get back to something real, which allows them to turn away from their many screens and get a unique sense of achievement,” Leverett adds.
Such is the value of the device among serious buyers that they don’t mind shelling out hundreds of thousands of dirhams for a top-notch creation. “One of the most expensive pianos we have sold is the Cabinet 192 Louis Quinze, with hammered-gold embellishments, for €90,000 [Dh367,800],” says Grotrian’s Wegner. “The Concert Royal 277 model goes for about €130,000 [Dh531,300], but it’s more for professional use.”
Leverett adds: “Our rebuilt pianos start from £23,000 [Dh110,000]. The most expensive piano we sold was a Steinway Model D for £75,000 [Dh360,000], which was recreated to better than new. If you compare that to the cost of a new Model D, at £139,000 [Dh662,000], it is actually value for money.”
Prices vary greatly based on the manufacturer and model, as well as the design details and customisation requests. Bespoke pianos are very popular among collectors today, most of whom choose the colour and finish of the instrument, while some even dictate the etchings on the soundboard, the shape of the legs and the look of the bench.
“Right now there is a lot of excitement surrounding uber-modern acrylic designs. Aesthetically pleasing curved-metal pianos, such as the Fazioli M Liminal [see video below], are also popular,” says Sunny Manchen Reuter, vice president of the Florida-based Euro Piano Naples, which specialises in custom-created pianos. “We can have an instrument finished in gold leaf, covered in paintings, mirrors, leather or gemstones. Buyers can choose everything from the design and angle of the legs to the hardware, the felt, the colour of the soundboard and the crafting of the bench. Really, the sky is the limit.”
Leverett, who is a master craftsman himself, stresses the importance of using high-quality materials when buying or commissioning a display-worthy instrument. “From slow-grown Sitka spruce for the soundboards to handmade porous acrylic to cover the key tops, only the best materials will attain best results.” Piano Restorations is currently close to signing a deal with a high-net-worth patron in Dubai for a bespoke piece crafted from custom-designed exotic veneers. “If this goes through, it will truly be a one-of-a-kind piece of art,” says Leverett.
The idea of the piano as a work of art is key to its status as a luxury collectible. Whether or not buyers play the instrument themselves, they look upon it as a valuable addition to their space. “Displaying your own piano makes a huge statement in any home,” says Leverett. “There is no greater pleasure than calling friends over to enjoy a world-class piano, either for a performance from a family member or by inviting a famous concert pianist for private recitals. The impact is both ornamental and truly emotional.”
As Reuter puts it: “There is a deep satisfaction and a quiet confidence in knowing that you have chosen a high-performance machine that is as covetable as an artwork, and that the piano gracing your home will be revered and enjoyed for generations to come.”