Piano Finders

Piano Finders

Knock-Off Brands: When a piano is not what it seems by Kendall Ross Bean

Watching Out for Deception in the Used Piano Market

Every now and then we will come across a piano that seems a bit strange. For instance, it may have the name of a certain maker printed on the fallboard above the keys, or even engraved inside on the plate (harp), but not look like anything we’ve ever seen coming from that piano company.

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Usually, all pianos made by a certain firm have a certain family resemblance, i.e. certain style characteristics, or identifying attributes. If you happen to encounter a piano, with a manufacturers name on it that looks completely different than what you’re used to seeing from that manufacturer, it's indeed possible that it really wasn’t made by them.

It is amazing what some people in the used piano business today try to get away with. Part of the problem is that the used piano business is not really well regulated (if at all!) and there is a lot of ignorance out there on the part of the consumer as to what to expect. Given those conditions, it’s not surprising that a lot of people are being taken advantage of.

Just recently I was appraising a piano at a certain local dealer’s who sold used pianos. The particular grand I was appraising had been refinished, and restrung, and had one of  the Baldwin Piano Company’s names on it (Monarch or Howard, I think). The Baldwin Co., over the years, has made a number of different brands of pianos, all associated with the prestigious “House of Baldwin.” Now around here, anything that’s associated with Baldwin can usually sell faster and for more than some other, lesser known piano names, and so this piano should have been quite appealing to a potential customer. The problem was, this piano didn’t look like any of the Baldwin Monarchs or Howards I had ever seen. In fact, it looked a lot like another brand that didn’t sell as well or as fast as the Baldwins did.

Usually if you don’t trust the name on the fallboard, and if the piano has just been refinished by someone you don’t know, it’s standard practice to look and see if the maker’s name is cast into the plate, because that’s quite a bit harder to counterfeit. While fallboard decals for any make of piano can be readily obtained, without any sort of verification that you indeed have that brand of piano in your possession, changing the name on the plate is much more difficult. But in this case, the name definitely seemed cast into the plate, in raised letters.

Still, I wasn’t completely convinced, especially after checking the action in this piano and discovering that it wasn’t like any Baldwin action I had ever seen.  Later that day I happened to drop by a piano rebuilding shop nearby, to visit a rebuilder who often did work for us.  I happened to mention to him, in passing,  that there was a very strange looking Baldwin at this dealer’s, and I didn’t quite know what to make of it.  He gave me a knowing look, and said, yes, he had seen it too, and he had his doubts, also. He told me that this dealer had just recently started buying from a new wholesaler who also rebuilt and refinished pianos, and had been getting quite a few Baldwins in lately, usually with the Howard or Monarch label. He told me he also did not think they were really Baldwins. But we couldn’t figure out how the name had been cast in the plate.

Later, my rebuilder acquaintance went over to do some work at this dealer’s and decided to conduct a little experiment. He took a screwdriver and applied a little pressure, with the tip, at the base of one of the letters on the plate of this presumed Baldwin piano. The letter went “pop” and flew off across the room. In examining the letter, he discovered that it was plastic, and had been glued to the plate before the plate was refinished. Then, later, after the plate was regilded and the letters painted black, the result, to all appearances, looked like the letters were part of the cast iron, and that it was the actual manufacturer’s name, cast into the plate in the foundry. It also appeared that the original name on the plate had been ground off.

We couldn’t understand how the wholesaler could rationalize this type of deception. After we informed the dealer of the little charade, the dealer confronted the wholesaler and asked him what was going on. The wholesaler said, in effect, that he had discovered that pianos associated with the Baldwin name sold better than some of the other, lesser known brands, so he had just been putting the names of some of Baldwin ’s “house brands” on the pianos. He apparently didn’t see any harm in it, that is, until the dealer, who had a different set of ethics, made him take all the counterfeit pianos back..

Now, if someone were building and selling new pianos and putting someone else’s name on them to help make a sale, there would probably be a big fuss, and likely a lawsuit. The irony of it is that probably at least 5 to 6 times as many used pianos as new ones change hands every year, and this sort of thing happens quite often. And yet, unless a sharp technician or appraiser catches it, these deceptive types of practices will go on virtually undetected.

If you are checking out pianos for yourself or someone else, your best protection is to know what to expect from certain brands. Know what their style characteristics are, what their parts look like, how they are built, their little idiosyncrasies. Have an eye out for things that just don’t seem right or which seem out of character for that brand of piano. Ask yourself: Have I ever seen this type of legs on this brand of piano, this style of music rack? What about this fallboard, these knobs, this plate style? Why all of a sudden would this manufacturer start using this type of action? 

Be particularly suspicious of  block letters on the plate that:

  • Don’t look like the manufacturer’s regular typestyle
  • Are not be too carefully aligned with each other, and
  • Resemble the plastic kind you can purchase in office supply stores.

If you have any doubts, have a qualified technician inspect the piano for you. Someone who is familiar with the major brand names of pianos and what they look like will be able to recognize a knock-off.