The Auction Page

Please remember that, as with 'Pianos for Sale', I have not usually seen these pianos, and any comments I make may be based entirely on information supplied by the auctioneers, or what we can see from the pictures.

Gardiner Houlgate, Friday 15th December


1789 Broadwood

  As everybody knows, these are my favourite square pianos; my own 1787 example has a beautiful silvery tone, and I find the Broadwood action with the brass under-dampers much easier to regulate than an ordinary single action.  For some reason, it it possible to achieve good control without risk of bounce.  


  This one, number 1042, is the more expensive model, with the French stand and elegant cross-banding veneer.

  The inscription is the earliest version 'Johannes Broadwood Londini Fecit' - this was changed to English to say 'John Broadwood & Son' when James Shudi Broadwood was made a partner in 1794. 


  It has evidently been carefully restored, with new strings.  Good to see the original label with instructions in English and French for adjusting the dampers.

The inside looks very tidy, and not 'over-restored'.

Good keyboard.  There are evidently some splits in the soundboard, but this does mean that it is more likely to be the original.  In my experience, minor splits like this have remarkably little effect on the tone.

The other square piano in the sale was rather more unusual.

5½ octaves and the absence of nameboard frets indicate a date at the end of the eighteenth century.   There is just one piano by Robert & William Gray recorded in 'Clinkscale'; the one now in the sale carries the name of William alone.

The piano is conventional in most respects, but there is something I cannot quite understand about the action - what are those white pads visible in the pictures above and below?  I hope to have detailed pictures soon.

Also unusual is the divided bridge, carrying the overspun and brass strings on the bass section, and the steel strings with an extended scale for the remainder.  This idea was patented by Broadwood and used for grands from about 1790, but not adopted on squares until the 1820s.

Pictures by, and by courtesy of, Gardiner Houlgate

Piano Auctions Limited June 22nd - an Amazing Pleyel Harpsichord.

   For various reasons, including the unusually hot weather, there was just a small turnout at our informal gathering of Friends of Square Pianos on Wednesday 21st June. 

  The item of greatest interest to me was a historically very important early revival harpsichord by Pleyel, made around 1906, the era of Dolmetsch and Landowska.  These 'modern' harpsichords are very much out of favour these days, but they were beautifully made and an important part of musical history.  This one was reconditioned about ten years ago, which is probably a good thing in view of the complexity of the mechanism.  

  The thinking behind the 'Revival' harpsichords makes a truly fascinating study, and Wolfgang Zuckermann's 1970 book is well worth reading.  This early example by Pleyel is fairly typical in having a piano-style frame with an open bottom, although not yet a metal frame.  The early Revival makers were obsessed with perceived tuning instability, and although simple iron pins whacked into a wooden plank were good enough for Steinway et al for big pianos, the innovations in tuning systems pioneered by Pleyel were remarkable, and have to represent a triumph of ingenuity over common sense.  This early example uses a two-stage tuning mechanism that I have never seen before.  

 The top surface of the wrestplank is made of metal.  Each 'wrestpin' is in three parts, starting with a sort of shoe, which is held down (adjustably), by a short square-headed screw on the part nearer to the player.  The front of this shoe (towards the strings) engages in a shallow rebate in the metal surface, allowing the shoe to rotate to a limited extent under the control of the screw.  The middle of the shoe further away fom the player has a plain socket with a serrated 'ratchet' top.   The third component of each unit is a short square-headed pin with a serrated collar that engages the ratchet in the shoe.  In the picture above, one of these pins has been temporarily removed to the right of its proper position (courtesy of a broken string!) and is resting on its neighbours.  The picture below shows the detail of this part.

This pin has a hole for the end of the string.  To rough-tune the note, the pin would be turned like a normal wrestpin, but clicking in the ratchet as it goes.  The pitch would be set either higher or lower than target, depending on how far down the other pin was screwed in.  Then finally, this holding-down pin would be turned, rocking the shoe to achieve fine-tuning.  The whole thing was beautifully-engineered, and must have been quite expensive to make.  

 Otherwise, the specification is quite standard, with 2 x 8' and 1x4' stops, coupler, lute, and buff, all controlled by six pedals.  


  This one did rather better than the estimate of £2,000 - £3,000, achieving £4,000 hammer-price (£4960 total), so happily we may assume that it has gone to a good home.     Otherwise, the specification is quite standard, with 2 x 8' and 1x4' stops, coupler, lute, and buff, all controlled by six pedals.  


  This one did rather better than the estimate of £2,000 - £3,000, achieving £4,000 hammer-price (£4960 total), so happily we may assume that it has gone to a good home.    

Piano Auctions Limited April 6th

Instruments from the Colt Collection


  We were sad to report the recent death of Lore Barbara Colt, widow of the founder of the Collection, Cecil Colt.  We all know that the collection has been undisturbed since the founder's death in 1985, and it has always kept a low profile, with no website or email.

  Some of the instruments at Bethersden were the personal property of Barbara Colt, rather than belonging to the charitable trust, and five of these were sold at Piano Auctions' April 6th sale.


  First of these is perhaps my favourite piano of all time, and the inspiration for my own grand piano.

  This is the beautiful Heilmann grand, said to date from c. 1775, but probably nearer to 1785.  I like to describe this as a 'friendly' piano; not showy, and made from plain walnut, but a lovely instrument to play. Not loud, but beautifully sensitive, and perfect for the music of Mozart and Haydn.


  Against an estimate of  £30,ooo - £50,000, the hammer price was £48,000 (just under £66,000 with commission).

  Then a very fine harpsichord by Joseph Kirckman 1800.  One of the last harpsichords made in England before the revival a hundred years later.

Unstrung at the time of the auction.  The hammer-price just reached the low estimate of  £20,000 .  

  One of the most famous grands of all time is the 1821 Tomkison, believed to have been made specially for the newly-crowned George IV for the Royal Pavilion, Brighton.  A splendid piano in rosewood and ormolu.

Brisk bidding for this one.  Against the estimate of £30,000 - £50,000, the hammer fell at £62,000 (£76,880 total).

Also in the sale is a large clavichord, probably Swedish or German, in the manner of Lindholm.  Perhaps not the prettiest of instruments; a bit Scandi-noir for my taste.  The top bid of £11,500 was some way short of the estimate of £15,000 - £20,000.

And finally a grand c. 1830 by the famous maker Conrad Graf of Vienna, who may have supplied Beethoven's last piano.

  Estimate £30,000 - £40,000.  Again the bidding fell a bit short, only reaching £25,000. 


  In cases like these last two, we cannot be sure if the instruments sold or not.  The lots were presumably protected by a reserve; this cannot be more than the low estimate, but it can be any amount less.  In some cases, as subsequent deal can be made with the highest bidder.

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© David Hackett