Collecting: Classic chance for those who know the score

Music manuscripts

There are few areas of collecting where a piece of paper can be worth more than £1m, but music manuscripts is one of them.

There are few areas of collecting where a piece of paper can be worth more than £1m, but music manuscripts is one of them.

"I've seen prices for music take a lunge forward in the past six years," says Stephen Roe, head of the manuscripts department at auction house Sotheby's. "A few great things have come on the market, and the prices they've achieved have attracted more. It's exciting because there are still some great works that can be bought - unlike literature where you're unlikely now to pick up something like an original Dickens."

"Great things" is no exaggeration. Last year the manuscript of Beethoven's Ninth Symphony sold at auction for £2.1m, and in 2002 the sketch leaf for the same symphony - a mere piece of paper - sold for £1.3m.

As with most areas of collecting, music manuscripts increase in value if they are in good condition, are by a famous composer and, best of all, are either entirely hand-notated by the composer or autographed by him. Naturally, the better-known and more distinguished the composer, the higher the value. Sometimes the look of the piece can help too. At Sotheby's next auction, to be held on 21 May, Stravinsky's original score of "Petrushka" will be on sale for an estimated £1.5m-£2m. The composer's neat and artistic notation makes this a particularly attractive piece, quite apart from being a major work.

Also featuring at this auction is a restituted Mahler manu- script (estimated price £400,000-£600,000) with a tragic tale behind it. It is a song called "Ich bin der Welt" and was presented to the composer's friend and fellow Jew, Guido Adler, in 1905. After Adler died, his daughter Melanie tried to preserve his library but was murdered by the Nazis.

"This is probably the last major Mahler score that will come on to the market," says Mr Roe. "These things are going to be rarer as time goes on. It is interesting which composers stand the test of time. Mahler was once considered a minor composer but has now become a major one."

It is heartening for those who don't have a spare few hundred thousand pounds to invest to know that composers and songwriters considered minor today could be rather more important later on. "Music manu- scripts are more specialist than books because while most people can read, not that many can read music," says artist and piano teacher Paul Douglas, who collects 19th- and 20th-century light music. "It makes it easier to pick up bargains in charity shops because quite often they don't know what they've got. Recently one woman found an Elgar score, with his own handwritten notations, selling in an Oxfam shop in London for £1. It sold at auction for thousands."

Mr Douglas, like many similar collectors, buys old manuscripts that are now out of print. He has found a number of reasonably valuable scores by rummaging in charity and second-hand shops. "I picked up a William Lovelock piano score for £1 once. He's not very well known but I know it's worth quite a bit more." He also looks for pieces by Percy Grainger, Constant Lambert and Vaughan Williams. "The quality of the printing from the 1930s to 1950s is much better than it is now. The front covers are also very attractive."

Smaller collectors like Mr Douglas tend to focus on one era or one composer. Members of the Billy Mayerl Society, for example, collect everything the jazz pianist ever wrote, as well as other syncopated, ragtime and generally light music written between 1915 and 1950. Even in this relatively unknown area, prices have gone up recently, says the society's secretary, Mike Lorenzini. "Billy published over 300 originals and 120 songs. Seven or eight years ago you could pick up one of his pieces in a junk shop for £1 or so; now we have to put down £25 to £30 a go."

You can find items like these on auction website Ebay now, or in catalogues from music dealers across the country. Travis & Emery in London produces a quarterly catalogue of manu- scripts and printed music ranging in price from just under £1,000 to as little as £12.50.

Helen Hardy from Travis & Emery says there is currently a great deal of interest in English music from the 1930s, and particularly late Victorian copies. "Something by Sullivan on his own, without Gilbert, is very sought-after, as are works by Charles Parry and Charles Stanford. You might pay around £125 for the printed score of one of their symphonies. As with books, there's also a lot of interest in first printed editions of major works from the 1800s, such as those by Mozart and Beethoven."

For the newer collector looking to invest in good music, Mr Roe advises: "Buy what you're interested in, look at what's out there and get the best quality you can afford." Works by composers you consider to be good or potentially great are likely to stand the test of time and appreciate later on, even if no one else has heard of them now.

They may not fetch millions in a decade's time but you could still be pleasantly surprised by their value.

HIGH NOTES

Prices

Anything from £1 for a charity shop "find" to £2.5m or more for a handwritten composition from a master musician.

More information

Billy Mayerl Society: Shellwood, St Leonards Road, Thames Ditton, Surrey KT7 0RN, tel: 020 8224 1521.

Travis & Emery: 17 Cecil Court, London WC2N 4EZ, tel: 020 7240 2129.

2004 events

* 21 May: Music sale at Sotheby's, London.

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