The Pianola Institute receives a steady trickle of enquiries about the value of pianolas, usually when their owners are considering selling them. Perhaps the instrument in question will have belonged to a relative who has died, or perhaps a house move forces the sale. It is a problem encountered in many parts of the world.
There are many piano and pianola dealers to be found on the World Wide Web, but the Pianola Institute is not one of them. We are a charitable company registered in the United Kingdom (a non-profit organisation to those of you in the USA), and our aims are mostly educational. We are all volunteers, who share a love of these wonderful instruments, and as such, we are not the people to ask for financial valuations. But the following thoughts may be of help to you in finding a way through the commercial jungle.
The first flourishing of the pianola and player piano occurred roughly between 1900 and 1930. At that time, the instruments were new and generally worked well, and their owners had reasonably sized music rooms or living rooms in which to place them. One could purchase new rolls over the counter, and they were not generally the preserve of collectors.
For the next thirty years, from 1930 to 1960, player pianos fell out of favour, and there was a time when almost no-one wanted them. In the UK, where upstanding church members enthusiastically took part in piano-bashing fundraisers, one was given a special bonus if the instrument to be smashed to pieces and passed through a lavatory seat happened to be a player piano.
After 1960, nostalgia took over, as a new generation remembered its childhood, where grandmother's pianola had sat in the front room, and the former child had been allowed to pedal it as a special treat. Pianolas and rolls became collectible, and as knowledge of them became more widespread, their value increased. However, the popularity of the instruments was not necessarily linked to a similar love of their music. It was perhaps the mechanical aspect of not only player pianos, but also orchestrions and music boxes, which mainly attracted the collectors and their money.
But nothing lasts for ever, and the twenty-first century has seen a sudden drop in the financial value of the player piano. Some more expensive styles have held their prices better, but even they no longer fetch the breathtaking sums which they once did. To those of us who love them for their music, it is rather pleasing to feel that they have once again become affordable by people who will love and use them, and not simply place them on show.
The reasons for this fall in value are quite practical ones. Firstly, the average size of living rooms is smaller than it once was, and people have other priorities. A wide screen television, even if it hangs on the wall, demands a certain space in the room for its proper appreciation. Player pianos have become yesterday's nostalgia, no longer evoking personal memories of family gatherings or childhood musical discoveries, and computers have taken over our lives. We have become a digital society, and in doing so, we have lost much of our feeling for the analogue pleasures of life. The craftsmen who could almost stroke a piano action into regulation are not to be found, and our concert pianists drive headlong through music that was meant for gentle meandering.
But as for monetary worth, the best way to find out the value of player pianos in general is to look at Ebay. If you are new to that website, remember that it is the sale prices that count, and to find those, you will have to watch until after the auction has finished, which means you need to bookmark those instruments that interest you, and watch their progress. Many sellers will advertise instruments as "fully restored", but unless you try one for yourself, there is no real way of knowing what this means. There are no registered examinations for player piano restorers - anyone can set themself up as one, and the standards of workmanship vary greatly. Listen to one or two of the recordings on this website, which have all been made with player pianos in reasonably good condition, and compare them with what you are selling or hoping to buy.
Finally, if there is any slim possibility, keep your pianola, get to know it, and it will reward you. Throw out the sofa instead. And don't expect that repairs, which are hugely time-consuming, will add as much as they cost to its value. If you have your car repaired, you don't expect to be able to sell it for more than you paid for it, and the same is true for pianolas, unless perhaps you bought a wreck and repaired it yourself. But if you did that, then you probably know its value already, so you won't be reading this page.