For a few grand more: Pianos, like wines, mature with age. If you want real character, says Gillian Widdicombe, don't buy new, buy second-hand

Click to follow
Most pianists remember their childhood pianos in detail. These were mine: at home, a small, gentle 1930s English mahogany upright, and a family grand that never recovered from the East Coast floods in 1957. At school, an evil brute which turned Chopin into Scott Joplin, but I liked it because, out of earshot in the clock tower, you could kick it, carve 'Elvis' on the lid, or read a novel instead. As a student, I bought from a retired colonel a bland upright Squire Longsdon so heavy the removal men fled when it stuck on the banisters of the first garret I called my own. Grands are easier to move, they said.

We accept these tyrannical pieces of furniture as if destiny has wedded us to them. Few pianists understand what goes on beneath the lid. Few question whether it is necessary for that expressive phrase to twang, or wonder whether their fingers might prove more obliging on a lighter or heavier action. Just keep practising. Even those who respect their pianos seldom tune them twice a year, as the good owner should.

The stock of good second-hand pianos is rapidly diminishing. There are sharks in this business, but you can learn a lot about pianos without buying one: go to the showrooms and try some. This is what you might find.

Kensington Pianos is owned by Haim Regev, an Israeli guitarist, who also runs Piano World in Chalk Farm, and sells cheap new pianos from the Far East, Czechoslovakia and South Africa. Regev says that if you've only got pounds 600, buy a new one. He can sell you a 'good' second-hand upright for pounds 1,000, and shows me a pretty walnut grand for pounds 2,500, by Squire Longsdon. The familiar name seduces me, and I find the action velvety, the tone sweet. But do I want another soft, bland English piano? Be bold, move on.

Another reason to move on is that a surprisingly large number of Haim's pianos seem to be out of tune. He talks a lot about value for money, and a rental scheme whereby, if you decide to buy after six months, the rental is deducted from the price. Sounds sensible. But a lady in Hampstead who bought a grand here for pounds 7,200 won a court action against Haim in 1992 because, although she played the piano in the showroom, it fell apart when she got it home.

The Yellow Pages have three pages of display ads for London, so I move on to NW1, where Markson Pianos have two beauties in the window: a reconditioned 1901 Broadwood grand, with stencilled panels - the interior decorator's dream - for pounds 15,000; and a gloriously decorated East German upright, built in 1898 by August Forster, now with brand-new interior. But pounds 6,500 for an upright piano? It's already sold, thank God]

Also in Markson's window I spy a salesman, playing - a good sign. 'You want a professional piano? Try this 1937 Grotrian-Steinweg.' It's a handsome upright, in burr-walnut, with a large, strident tone, for pounds 3,750. Another memory rings: I once knew a composer who stuffed a blanket in his Grotrian-Steinweg. The loudness of German pianos can seem oppressive in a small home.

Markson's assistant comes to the point: do you want a piece of furniture or a musical instrument? He shows me a Kawai grand so badly scratched that it must have interrupted a skateboard route. Any case can be repolished or given a new polyester coating, but the process is expensive, so this grand has been marked down to pounds 3,500 and bought by a musical couple who spotted its mechanical condition and tone.

Now to Edgware Road, to meet an eccentric who could talk about pianos till the woodworm come home. Edward Mandel is managing director of Jaques Samuel, one of the biggest dealers in the country. His basement is full of bits, his sales talk subversive. 'If you've only got pounds 600, keep the money in your pocket. You can't get anything for less than pounds 2,000 - this Ronisch (East German) upright is good, for pounds 3,000. A second-hand grand? Not for less than pounds 6,000. If you pay pounds 1,000 for a new piano, you're not going to get a decent action; after a while the notes will stick. I wouldn't expect to make an old piano into a new one - it's throwing good money after bad - but it can be done. Yehudi Menuhin insisted that we do a Bechstein recently, so we sent it back to Germany for a new plank and soundboard. I tried to discourage him but his mother-in-law had given it to him when he got married. If a piano is 100 years old, it's like asking a man of that age to do the marathon.'

Mandel says he wouldn't be able to sleep at night if he'd done some of the cowboy tricks he's seen. 'The police asked me to look at a piano outside Colchester - a couple of the shanks were strung together with a piece of string. I saw another in which somebody had attempted to make the action heavier, and put pins on the back of the keys with sticky tape. Then there was the lady in a Rolls-Royce, asking me to look at a piano in a sale. The plank was so badly cracked I told her it would be like painting the Forth Bridge. Auctions are the worst place to go. If a piano has a structural fault, I send it to auction.'

Mandel's views would annoy Richard Reason, a former composer who has taken pianos to bits since he was a child. Thirteen years ago, he persuaded Phillips, the auction house, to start quarterly piano sales, which now turn over about 400 pianos a year. You can play the pianos for four days preceding the sale, and the catalogue avoids frills. Lot 1: W H Barnes. An upright piano with an underdamper action, in a mahogany case. pounds 200- pounds 400 (sold for pounds 57). Lot 32: Steinway No 133615 (1908). A 6ft grand piano in a mahogany case, raised on square tapering supports. pounds 3,000- pounds 4,000 (sold for pounds 4,255). Surprise prices are rare, though a woman who bought a highly decorated reconditioned Steinway only three years ago for pounds 26,000 recently sold it at Christie's for pounds 49,000.

Reason says you should compare a piano to an old car, which you wouldn't buy without a report. Advice is easy to get: ask a tuner to examine it - the Piano Tuners' Association publishes a list. If you want to sell, Phillips ask what make, upright or grand, serial number, wood or colour. Don't flatter your heirloom or insist it's worth pounds 10,000.

Observing the market in recent years persuaded Reason to open a showroom specialising in cheap pianos, mostly with the old-fashioned straight stringing which produces the Scott Joplin sound. What happens to pianos that never, ever sell? Many get exported, but Reason says his workshop manager feeds a piano a week to his Rayburn.

Now to Steinway, every pianist's idea of heaven. A reconditioned 1920s Steinway grand can be exceptional value: pounds 16,000 when a new one would cost pounds 30,000. A full recondition costs about pounds 10,000, and takes up to nine months. Steinway have a handwritten archive which can reveal that a piano sold 70 years ago to Scotland has returned to the fold from France, and they can tell what work has been done - for example, if somebody has reconditioned it without Steinway parts.

How do young professionals find this kind of money? Christopher Elton, head of keyboard studies at the Royal Academy of Music, advises students to spend as much as possible - hire-purchase has been available for pianos since 1881. Exceptional students can get sponsorship, or get lucky. Joanna MacGregor was lent a Steinway by a well-known pianist with one too many.

Elton also advises students to avoid pianos with easy action, and not to be snobbish about the maker's name. Eight years ago the RAM acquired 10 cheap new Korean pianos for students to practise on. The day-long pounding was expected to demolish these Young Changs in only five years, but they've lasted eight already, and no one has carved 'Elvis' on them.

Local advertisements - the last resort. This was how the head of music at a large London comprehensive found a piano for a talented boy for pounds 40, and I saw a promising advertisement earlier this week: 'Piano, good condition, no dealers.' This led to a tuner who knows a florist in Felixstowe whose mother died leaving an overstrung Spencer, pounds 750. A bargain, no doubt. But I wonder where it was when the East Coast flooded in 1957.

The next piano auction at Phillips West 2, 10 Salem Rd, London W2, 071-221 5303, is on Monday 14 February (piano consultant Richard Reason, 0462 450367). Kensington Pianos, 071-602 7566; Piano World, 071-485 1555; Markson Pianos, 071-935 8682; Jaques Samuel Pianos, 071-723 8818; Richard Reason Pianos, 0462 454244; Steinway & Sons, 071-487 3391

(Photograph omitted)