Crooked instrument merchants mean you can never let down your guard
A crooked businessperson will see opportunity wherever there's money changing hands. Musical instruments are no exception.
If you don't have a skilled and experienced expert along to give you advice, how do you know that the $20,000 cello or violin is any better than the $500 beginner's instrument? More importantly, is the bargain a real bargain?
As with any other major purchase, there's some security in a brand name (except when a wily luthier switches labels) and near-total assurance when you buy from an established merchant who has carefully built an excellent reputation. But you always pay more for that seal of security.
Is it money well spent?
No matter how tempting the bargain price, the answer is yes. Of course, there are great bargains out there, usually from some lucky lightning strike, where someone has found an old instrument in an attic, or grandma had to move to a senior's home, leaving behind a valuable instrument that needs to be sold quickly. But these are truly lucky moments, not something that comes around every day.
I was reminded of this over the past 10 days, as I checked out the market for pianos (it's my instrument, so I feel more comfortable in separating fact from fiction).
What I discovered in a cursory survey made my skin crawl.
There's an Ontario-based guy selling a Steinway Model A, a great workhorse instrument, that he claims has been completely rebuilt, for a bargain price of $15,000. The best old Model A, the A-III, in ready-to-work condition, usually sells for about $40,000.
I looked more closely at the pictures posted on the well-known free buy-sell website and saw right away that it's really an old Duo-Art player piano that's been converted to a regular piano. It's not a Model A but (I'm guessing) an XR, based on the less-coveted Model M. I have played on several XR conversions -- done by reputable rebuilders -- over the years and have found them all lacking in the quality of the action.
I tried to contact this seller but, after a short initial conversation, he was no longer answering his phone.
Also responding to an ad posted on this website, I went to visit a piano teacher here in the GTA who has an old industrial office space filled with Yamaha and Kawai pianos. Each grand piano that I looked at was from one of his students, and was not needed any longer. The prices are incredibly good -- about half of what they would be at the city's most reputable multi-line stores: Robert Lowrey's, Merriam Music, Grand Piano House and Cosmo Music.
I kept asking if he had sourced these pianos in Japan, as there is a thriving business in grey-market instruments in North America (where containers full of used, freshened-up Japanese pianos are shipped over to eager cut-rate merchants on this side of the Pacific). The piano teacher kept insisting that these were local pianos, despite evidence to the contrary. (In case you're interested, pianos originally sold in Japan come with a plastic sleeve on the inner, bass-side rim as well as a serial-number plate on the underside of the lid -- both features missing from North American-market pianos.)
At one point, the piano teacher promised me a 25-year warranty -- about five times longer than a typical warranty on a used piano from those reputable stores -- to make me feel better. I couldn't help but think of what my father used to call fly-by-night used-car dealers, the ones operating out of trailers on vacant suburban lots. I wondered where this piano shop would be in 25 months, much less 25 years.
But the reality is that there are dozens and dozens of piano buyers in the Toronto area who are going to buy instruments from people like this every year. Most will, hopefully, never regret the purchase. But what about the others?
I'd love to find out more about the shady people operating in and around Toronto. If you know anyone with an interesting story to tell, please encourage them to get in touch with me: firstname.lastname@example.org
(York University prof and accomplished jazz pianist Mark Eisenman has added his eloquent take on the neglect of pianos in the comments, below.)
... not that you can't have fun with a bad piano: