Q: I am enclosing photographs of a beautiful Steinway piano that was left behind in a house my son bought. The serial number indicates it was built in 1869. Our dilemma now is that it needs to be taken out of the house because of its sheer size. It does need to be refinished and refurbished because it is missing one or two of its ivory keys and 20 of the keys do not work. The foot pedal and the music holder are in good shape. Do you have any idea of the value of this instrument? But right now, knowing the value is not of much help since no one seems to want it. Would you know what we could do with it?
A: We have faced this problem many times in the past, and it is always daunting. Square grand pianos (yes, we know they are really rectangular) are quite lovely, but they are seldom good musical instruments because their tone and performance are limited by their narrow sound board.
Proper hammer arrangement is also difficult, and they are hard to keep in tune. It is just the nature of the beast. Steinway & Sons of New York City, founded in 1853, produced an iron framed overstrung square grand piano that was more than twice the size of the wood framed square piano produced by Johannes Zumpe in England about 100 years earlier.
The piano, which was originally called the pianoforte (Italian for “soft/loud”) was invented around 1700 by Bartolomeo Cristofori. Square pianos were popular in England until the 1840s and in the United States until the 1890s, but today, they are for the most part seen as rather poor musical instruments
Steinway square grand pianos, however, are something of an exception. Prime examples of Steinway square grand pianos have sold at auction in the $8,000-plus range. But most run-of-the-mill examples bring prices only in the $250 to $700 range, with a few reaching a midrange of $1,800 to around $3,000.
The example in today’s question, however, is a bit of a wreck with 20 keys not working, a badly scuffed case with some of the ivory tops missing from “one or two” keys. We believe it would take relatively big bucks to make this into a beautiful and functioning musical instrument again. But there may be someone who wants to take this grand old grand piano and restore it.
We know most square pianos will be gutted and turned into desks, dining room tables or have their legs amputated to be used elsewhere, but someone may want to salvage this one. Donating it to a school or other institution is really not feasible because of the condition, but you could have it picked up by a reputable auction house and sold to someone who might be willing to do the extensive work necessary to save it as a piano.
The prognosis is not good, and the value may be very low (probably less than $500 at auction), but we can always hope.
Fix wood slats STAT
Q: I am hoping you may know a little something about an old portrait I have. It was left to me by my great aunt.
A: The first thing we want to say — and really the reason why we are answering this letter — is the last photograph you supplied shows the piece was secured in the frame using wooden slats, probably thin pieces of pine board.
This is a huge problem! The wood produces acid, and the acid eats away at the paper on which the image was made. We cannot see any obvious problems in the photographs, but the wooden backs need to be replaced immediately — or failing that, a barrier of acid-free paper needs to be placed between the wooden slats and the picture.
This is not just a problem for your picture. Many homes have antique pictures held in frames with wooden slats, and the wood inevitably causes problems. With every tick of the clock, damage is being done. This issue needs to be addressed with some immediacy.
Now, dismounting our soapbox, we want to say sometimes it is better to be lucky than smart. All we could read of the artist’s signature was “Mun,” possibly “Munk,” so we went fishing and discovered the artist’s name was Mihaly Munkacsy, a Hungarian born artist of some note.
He was born Michael von Lieb in Munkacs, Ukraine, in 1844 (Hungary at the time), and later took his artistic pseudonym (Mihaly Munkacsy or Mihaly de Munkacsy) from his place of birth. He studied in Hungary, Austria and Germany and settled in Paris after visiting the Exposition Universelle in 1867. He became known for his large biblically themed works and genre paintings.
What you own is one of his genre pictures, not a portrait. A genre painting typically portrays scenes of everyday life. This is one of Munkacsy’s so-called “salon paintings,” which portrays lavishly furnished rooms with well-to-do people going about their daily lives.
Your particular image is titled “Baby’s Visitors” and is dated 1879. This particular example, however, is a print or etching, not an original. When we magnified the artist’s signature, we noticed an embossing that appeared to read (in part) “Coloured By.” This suggests the piece was hand-colored, probably in Europe because of the spelling.
Munkacsy died in 1900 in a German mental hospital near Bonn. He had depression and syphilis. The print is an interesting image, but we cannot know how damaged it is from the acid in the wooden back, and we don’t know the size. Etching of similar Munkacsy salon images in poor condition have sold at auction for as little as $30, but they were also hand signed by the artist. You should check below the mat to see if the image is in fact signed by Munkacsy. But even if it is, the retail value is probably less than $100.
Helaine Fendelman and Joe Rosson have written a number of books on antiques. Do you have an item you’d like to know more about? Contact them at Joe Rosson, 2504 Seymour Ave., Knoxville, TN 37917, or e-mail them at treasuresknology.net. If you’d like your question to be considered for their column, please include a high-resolution photo of the subject, which must be in focus, with your inquiry.