No one will believe this story, except those who trust their eyes to bear witness to a tragedy that befell a piano and its owner. The photos attached to the text flesh out a particular misfortune in graphic detail giving credence to the statement that truth is stranger than fiction.
If anything can be learned from this epic ordeal, it’s Buyer Beware!
“Shattered Dreams,” is a chapter from my manuscript about pianos; the people who sometimes impetuously buy and love them; abandon them; and then often try to re-claim them. Add in sleazy Internet scams, shady international dealers, foul play, and you have a burgeoning soap opera starring any number of exotic pianos that end up in the trash as firewood, stripped of their dignity, and sometimes left bare-boned without a case. One particular cracked plate, a skeletal remain of an antique European grand, the Proksch, endured so much abuse that it was laid to rest in a stirring ceremony, with its owner overwrought with grief.
The story was initially relayed to me by Connell York, piano tuner, and long-time friend. His client, used him as an expert witness in a legal claim she had filed against the company that sold her the piano.
Proksch 1905 grand piano–A Shattered Dream
Rebecca McGregor, an avid community fundraiser, mother, and wife of an established tax attorney, regretted having selected in cyberspace what she thought was the piano of her dreams. Her 12-year-old daughter, a devoted piano student with a less than perfect piano, needed a replacement according to her teacher, so Rebecca followed her fast-tapping fingers to the Internet where she encountered an eye-catching 1905 Austrian Proksch grand piano in a flawlessly finished ebony cabinet with Empire legs, ornate brass casters and a carved fleur-de-lis music rack.
A link to the seller, A-440 Pianos through the eBay network revealed a universe of “New and Vintage premium pianos” of promised excellence.
The company, in Lilburn, Georgia was one of the first to capitalize on the budding potential of online commerce. Ron Smith, who worked for owner, Pascal Vieillard, told me by phone that the company had aggressively forged ahead with its sales on many levels, attracting buyers within the state, out-of-state, and all over the world by cyber and through personal contacts.
“We have a showroom right outside Atlanta and a second residence of 2,500 square feet that houses more pianos, and a huge warehouse full of boxed ones,” he said.
Scanning through columns of online posted photos of exotic European pianos such as Bosendorfer, Petrof, and Bechstein that were separated from more mainstream brands such as Yamaha and Kawai, an Internet visitor would immediately appreciate the vastness of A-440’s inventory and its relatively easy access.
What made the virtual tour so engaging was a seductive soundtrack of moody 40’s era piano pieces that evoked the opening of Woody Allen’s “Play it Again, Sam,” with its smoke-filled bistro.
I was instantly entranced by the site, as I scrolled through reams of dream pianos, many of which looked enticing enough to own.
From my two Online visits to A-440 Pianos, I could easily understand how Rebecca McGregor might have launched her piano search right there in cyberspace accompanied by the strains of a bluesy piano.
She admitted that after she spoke with the owner, Pascal Vieillard, a French merchant who jet-set all over the world from Europe to China, Japan and back to expand his inventory, she got suckered in. “He was so charming,” she said, “and on one occasion, while I was speaking with him by phone, he communicated so touchingly with his children. I thought to myself, how could someone this caring be anything but trustworthy.”
I was chatting with assistant, Ron Smith, about a Victorian looking grand piano that resembled a Fritz piano on sale at the American Cancer Society Thrift store in Fresno, when he abruptly transferred me to “a period piano specialist.” In no time I was listening to a heavily accented Frenchman named “Pascal” (the owner) who talked with authority about a “Zacha & Sohn” piano that could have been a look-alike.
“Zeese pianos made in Vienna in the mid-19th Century, zey look very seemilar,” he insisted.
“So would they have the Viennese action?” I inquired.
“Ah yes, defineetly.”
“Do you know if this one has a black pedal bar that bobs up and down?” I asked.
“Oh, most certainly,” he replied.
“So do you actually restore these pianos?”
“Ah yes, we have very esteemed people in Europe who do the restorations.”
Ron Smith had mentioned in our first conversation that most buyers purchased a piano and then restored it later.
“Makes no sense to put all that work into an instrument before it’s sold,” he insisted.
Ron’s statement could have been invalidated. Restoring period pianos was a gray area since there was no guarantee of success. If a piano was not well-born like a Steinway or Bosendorfer, re-stringing and re-hammering it might be an exercise in futility. It would yield little if any improvement in tone and projection.
Thomas Winter, San Francisco restorations specialist had said that rebuilding an early piano was a big question mark. He was joined by a growing choir of cynics.
In truth, the Proksch piano, with a serial number that revealed its age to be over 100 years old, was not a good choice for restoration because of its marginal pedigree. While it looked aristocratic, it did not spring from nobility.
Nevertheless, Rebecca McGregor’s attraction to the Proksch increased after she heard its “lovely tone” over the phone. And Pascal Vieillard nursed her infatuation by providing more exotic details about its restoration.
“This piano was built by an ex-student of the BOSENDORFER PIANO-MAKING SCHOOL and rebuilt by Helmut Schonberger, a master technician in LEIPZIG, Germany (He worked on several pianos for the Viennese OPERA house and other very picky institutions) We do not even come close in the U.S.A. to do this kind of quality work…all parts are German ABEL HAMMER and custom-made Renner.”
He instilled even more confidence in the buyer by telling her that the Proksch was “an investment-grade piano with a flawlessly finished cabinet” that her daughter “would pass on to her children.”
Rebecca McGregor may not have asked the right questions before she plunged into buying the Proksch. In a heart beat, she wrote a personal check for $10,500 made out to “A-440 Pianos” without thinking about hiring an independent and unbiased, registered piano technician to give the piano a good rundown. Just this measure alone might have saved her future anguish.
As the piano took its belabored cross-country journey to Fresno, California, from Atlanta, Georgia, it got hung up in delay when it had arrived on the West Coast. Transferred from one mover, Keyboard Carriage, to Schafer Brothers, a series of complications increased the buyer’s despair.
“I’m not going to call because I am too angry,” McGregor wrote to Ron and Pascal. “I don’t know what you’ve formerly found to be courteous about the movers, but I can assure you that they have been rude, abrupt, and arbitrary.”
She’d been promised the piano on a certain day, but was told she would first receive a call to verify delivery. Too many times, the updates faded in the wind.
Understandably distressed by the vagueness of delivery, she logged every complication along the way in her personal journal:
“Ron Smith said he could give me only an estimate but not the actual date of the piano’s arrival. Was I crazy? He kept telling me to calm down and the more condescendingly he spoke, the madder I got. AND the more we argued about stupid semantics, the later the delivery became and the more circuitous the route.. first to Santa Barbara, then to the Bay area and then the piano will be the last drop in Fresno before the truck heads to Los Angeles. ”
In a second e-mail sent to Ron, the buyer expressed even further frustration.
“The delivery men came at 6:00 p.m. last night. I can’t begin to tell you about the series of phone calls and misinformation that flew around. They left a message on my cell phone (which I rarely use) telling me that they would be here at noon.
“I had some questions about the piano and I asked many times if the finish was in good condition. When it finally arrived well past its due date, it looked fine, but the side and back were covered with cracks in the cabinet that went through the veneer. The finish had been applied over these cracks, so it wasn’t something that surely happened after I received it.”
Rebecca had also noted “how odd it was that the piano had stainless steel and metal screws alongside brass adornments. She wanted to match all of them in brass but wondered if these screws were especially made for pianos.
“The sound was excellent, as far as she could tell at this point,” she wrote in the journal, recapitulating her email to Pascal. “But several of the keys stuck and it was impossible to play last night. The piano tuner would be coming today at 1:00 p.m. and we’ll see what he can do to remedy the situation… I’ll let you know what the tuner says today. This is a lovely piano and I hope we can resolve some of my concerns.”
At least one sticking key had been identified before the piano left the showroom and Pascal had promised to fix it. Now there were several sticking keys that Bill Barrett, Fresno piano tuner, thought might be caused by their shifting in transport from Georgia to California. McGregor had hoped this would be the only problem to remedy as she had been very impressed with the piano’s tone.
During his first piano inspection, Barrett said that “the inner workings of the piano had been beautifully restored.” What remained then, were the touch-up issues on the finish. On this very subject Pascal replied by e-mail a few weeks after the Proksch’s arrival in Fresno in early April 2005:
“Hello, I am back from Germany and I am glad to see that you are in agreement with me about the tone quality of this piano. Feel free to call me tomorrow regarding touch-up of the cabinet.”
Cosmetic matters put aside, the future of this piano as a credible musical instrument had not yet been sealed in stone.
Seven months passed after McGregor’s correspondence with Vieillard about the cabinet irregularities before she shared more upsetting news with him:
In an e-mail dated November 2, 2005, she wrote:
“I apologize for taking so long to deal with the finish on the piano. Now it seems to be the least of our problems….My daughter practiced last night just before bed and again this morning. She has a recital on Sunday. This afternoon when she began to practice after school, 8 to 10 of the keys were suddenly off, very flat and tinny.
“I called our tuner and asked if he could do us a favor and come over immediately. He did his best to tune the piano again (This is its fourth tuning since we’ve had it) but he noticed that one of the major screws holding the cross-bar on the harp had cracked in two. Now that the piano is tuned, it stills sounds very bright, tinny, and simply not right.
“The tuner indicated that the repair was going to be major and that he would refer us to someone who could handle it. I am beside myself. It sounds like a different piano, and now I’m concerned about the integrity of the harp itself! Please tell me what more you know about the repairs made on this piano before we spend another dime!”
McGregor had noticed for the first time when the tuner pulled out the piano action, that most if not all the screws in the cross-bar of the cast iron plate had been shimmed with smaller screws drilled into the center of each of the larger screws. It indicated that repair work had been done before shipment from Georgia.
Pascal had replied from Japan that he was interested in seeing “pictures of the problem from close and not so close.” He insisted that the company had bought the piano “already redone.”
McGregor replied that “the piano really sounded terrible, not the mellow tone both you and I remembered. Last night my daughter said that it sounded worse than her old piano. ..It’s now so discordant that we can barely tolerate listening to her practice.”
McGregor’s anger reached fever pitch when she e-mailed Pascal on November 7, 2005.
“From our tuner’s viewpoint, it seems that the Capo d’Astro bar has been warping and tension on the strings finally caused the bolt to snap. (This literally happened over night) My daughter played before bed and when she returned to the piano after school the next day, the sound and tuning had changed dramatically. There’s also a full crack in the bar at the junction where it meets the harp. I’ve included the photograph of the peeling powder coating which was not noticed until we removed the music stand (piano rack).”
McGregor had sent Vieillard ten photos that graphically exposed cracks to the cast iron plate and its horizontal bar (Capo d’Astro) She also included one picture of her daughter “trying to practice” on the morning after the meltdown.
“Needless to say, we’re devastated!” she wrote. “This is a gorgeous piano, visually, but now it’s unplayable! We await your advice and response.”
The buyer’s declaration about the piano’s failure also applied to a Johann Fritz 7 foot piano that was being sold by a Visalia interior designer who marketed skin products on the side. I had learned from York who visited the location that this piano was just a pretty piece of furniture with no value as a musical instrument.
Meanwhile, Pascal responded to Rebecca in a doting, but evasive way as she continued to record the back and forth communications.
“Of course the best picture is the one of your daughter playing the piano,” he said. “Please give me a call. I have a few ideas.”
Enraged, McGregor replied.
(November 14, 2005)
“…I cannot imagine that you expect us to walk away from what you referred to as an ‘investment for generations to come.’ “The piano was $10,000 as I am sure you recall, and the fees for delivery, repairs and tunings, fixing the “stuck” key (a pre-existing condition according to you), the flaws in the finish (which miraculously appeared en route), the peeling gold powder coating on the plate and now an irreparable crack in the plate, make the piano useless and of no value! Would you just walk away? What do you expect me to do? Better yet, what should I tell my daughter about her piano?”
There was no further correspondence between Rebecca and Vieillard from that point on as recorded in her journal. In the months following, she had dealt with complications from breast cancer and several related surgeries that drained her energies. When she was back on her feet and able to think things carefully through, she decided to file a small claims action against A-440 pianos. The decision was fueled in part by a letter she received from the owner of a reputable piano company located in the Bay area. He had reviewed her detailed piano photos and wrote back:
“I looked at the pictures. Repairs are not recommended. You have already over-invested in this piano. Stop now and cut your losses. By the way the idea that this was an ‘investment quality instrument’ is ludicrous. You can count the number of investment quality pianos on one hand. They are all household names and are very expensive.” He was referring to Steinways, Mason Hamlins, Bosendorfers and a few other choice brands.
“So sorry about your experience with these——people in Atlanta. Legal action is about your only recourse, but I have no idea if that is even possible. People buy pianos every day sight-unseen on the Internet, and it’s “buyer beware,” but it seems like a very risky proposition to me. With a little research most folks get very shy of deals like this.”
The piano company owner’s words summed up lessons to be learned from fly-by night purchases of Internet pianos. Even if a buyer had perceived a piano’s lovely tone by phone, long distance, it would not amount to a thorough evaluation of a 100-year-old instrument.
Hindsight is 20/20 but perhaps McGregor should have had a tuner from Atlanta pull the action and carefully inspect the cast iron plate for incipient signs of weaknesses or outright cracks. One would think that Vielliard, a confirmed Associate Member of the State’s Piano Technician’s Guild would have made sure that such detailing would precede the piano’s shipment. But it was still unclear whether the piano had shown signs of metal fatigue at any point in its life before delivery to the owner.
Mr. York, an old-time tuner friend, had become involved in the sticky situation at about the time Bill Barrett, his professional colleague noticed the cracks in the cast iron plate.
About a year following Rebecca McGregor’s ordeal, York came over to my house to provide me with background on the cast iron plate. He described it as the piano’s “back bone” and as such, it was subject to at least 40,000 pounds of pressure (2 tons) exerted by the weight of the strings. If the plate cracked, the piano was “really in bad shape,” basically, terminal, he insisted.
According to information gleaned from “Five Lectures on the Acoustics of the Piano” presented by Harry A. Conklin, the cast iron plate was “the supportive structure for all the strings and had to be strong enough not to break under the load of strings, and it needed to be stiff enough to offer good tuning stability…A massive structure in 9 foot concert grands, it might weigh between 342 and 396 pounds.”
Pascal Vieillard had not offered the buyer a warranty on the Proksch piano. He had included this statement within a response to the small claims action filed against A-440 Pianos. by Rebecca and John McGregor in May, 2006:
According to this merchant with an international trade profile, “The plaintiff purchased a piano that was shipped in good condition and received in good condition. The piano was over 100 years and carried no warranty. There was no way to foresee the trouble the Plaintiff would have with the piano 7 months after receiving it.”
McGregor’s Declaration asserted that “Defendant, Pascal Vieillard represented to Plaintiffs that the piano was sound; was an investment-quality instrument and would be played for years to come. The piano was instead not merchantable or fit to be played for any substantial period.”
In a written opening statement the buyer detailed what Ron Smith, Vieillard’s associate had said before the piano purchase was concluded:
“He told me that he could not provide me any written guarantee, but the one thing he would tell me was that he would verbally guarantee the plate, explaining that everything other than a plate could be repaired and that a plate should be my only real concern. I had no idea what a ‘plate’ was but took him at his word.”
Connell York had been enlisted to be McGregor’s one and only expert witness at a trial held at the Gwinnett County Courthouse, in Lawrenceville, Georgia in early August, 2006.
“I wanted ta help the lady out, and do a much as I could fer her,” York said as he was pointing to the Capo d’astro bar inside my Steinway grand, a raised horizontal part of the plate.
“So do you think the cracks were pre-existing, even before the piano arrived in Fresno?” I asked.
“Well ya just never know, they’s could have been the beginnings of cracks way back before they’s was discovered.”
“And what would actually cause these cracks?” I asked.
“Well they’s coulda come from plain old metal fatigue. That there piana, whatever it’s called, is 100 years old. What would ya expect?”
It’s a Proksch, Mr. York!” I said. I could barely pronounce the name myself without spitting or losing my breath. Rebecca McGregor, on the other hand, said it gracefully with the hint of a lovely Eastern European accent—she just glided through it.
“So could the cracks have been caused by the long piano move across the country?”
“Aw shucks, no,” York answered. “If them movers had dropped the piana, the case woulda’ been destroyed first, well before that there plate would.”
“Well, maybe repeated tunings had caused undo tension to the plate.”
“Now that’s entirely possible,” he said, “cause that piana’ is so old, it maybe couldn’t take too many tunins cause we’re talkin’ here about 40,000 pounds a pressure applied by the strings! Now listen up,” he continued, “way back in them old years, pianas wasn’t built to be tuned up as high as 440 frequencies. They’s was set at 435, ‘bout 30 cents down, so that there pooch piana or whatever she calls it, wasn’t hell bent on getting’ its pitch raised.”
To brush up on my knowledge about cast iron plates, I located an article in the November 2000 Piano Technicians Journal, titled “Piano Plate Breakage a Case Study.” Steve Brady, RPT Editor, stated that “plates rarely break and when they do, it is probably because of their inferior or faulty design.” He added that when the plate breaks, “it is not uncommon for it do so some years after the piano was built. Stress fatigue in metal occurs with the passage of time, and microscopic cracks do grow until the part finally fails.” He concluded, therefore, that piano tuners can’t be blamed for causing plate damage simply by raising the pitch of strings.
Rebecca McGregor had flown York to Atlanta, Georgia and then they drove off to Lawrenceville, nearly getting lost.
“Mr. York couldn’t follow the exit signs for me and I’d been told that the citizens of Atlanta complained about them, too,” she said. “The more exits we missed, the more anxious we became.”
When the two of them managed to arrive at the Gwinnett County Courthouse, Small Claims Division, they looked southern justice straight in the eye. Not a court reporter was in sight, and the defendant’s attorney kept voicing objections to every last bit of York’s testimony. Unfortunately, the judge sustained nearly all of them.
McGregor summed up the courtroom scene. “Mr. York really did his best to explain, but neither the judge nor the defendant’s attorney would allow him to complete a thought. Additionally, we were both simply frightened and out of our element.”
She was beside herself trying to make some headway fleshing out the truth of her tragedy, but the judge recused her star witness just as she was beginning to make inroads.
“That there attorney on the other side was in the judge’s hip pocket,” York said.
Plaintiff McGregor could barely continue. She felt so downtrodden that she wanted to take the earliest plane out of Atlanta. Even her own testimony had been barred because the judge ruled that she was not an “expert.”
“When it was all over,” she said, “Mr. York called his wife and I called my husband, both of us sounding exhausted, frustrated and close to tears.”
The Defendant, Pascal Vieillard, 45, owner of A-440 Pianos had dominated the courtroom all along with his argument that the piano had been shipped from the store in good condition, without a warranty, and whatever happened to a 100-year-old piano, 6 or so months after delivery was the buyer’s problem.
Curious and concerned about the absence of a reporter transcribing testimony at the trial, I contacted a Gwinnett County court clerk who insisted that having the trial recorded would clog up a court system that was meant to move claims of $35 to $15,000 briskly along.
Jonathon Jones, attorney, Fresno, whose garage housed his Yamaha dream piano that I had recently detailed, echoed the opinion of the Georgia clerk:
“Shirley, Concerning the small claims case to which you refer, the fact that there was no court reporter is not unusual. Small claims court is closest to arbitration. The intent is to get small disputes under $15K, resolved without clogging the main court system.”
In a telephone interview I conducted with Pascal Vieillard on May 11, 2007, he stated unequivocally that he had offered the buyer, Rebecca McGregor an even exchange on the damaged Proksch but that she declined.
“I don’t know if she told you how many times I made zis same proposal, but she said, “I don’t trust you anymore so I am not going to buy another piano from you!”
According to Vieillard, he believed that he had tried to satisfy the customer by offering her this option and therefore felt spared further blame. When questioned about whether he would encourage customers to get a technician’s opinion from any number of members of the Atlanta Piano Technician’s Guild before making a purchase of his pianos, he shied away from saying yes. “Well, we all know each other,” he said.
During the course of the interview, Pascal Vieillard verified his Associate membership in the Atlanta Technician’s Guild and admitted that he had not passed the required exam to become “registered.” Mr. York was also an associate member of the local PTG and had not passed a comparable examination. Vieillard stated that he obtained a two year Associate Degree in Piano Technology at Western Iowa Tech in 1988.
In follow-up interview with Rebecca McGregor, conducted on May 12, 2007, she responded to the statements made by Viellard:
“Oh my God, he said on the witness stand under oath that he graduated the University of Iowa!! I distinctly remember this because I thought it was ironic that he had graduated from my father’s alma mater.
“As for his offer to exchange the piano, it’s a lie, simple and without question. The only offer he made was to meet me at the big NAMM trade show in Los Angeles in January and allow me to buy one of the pianos there at cost, through him. Additionally, he offered to take my piano back if I paid the freight and was willing to take any money he could get for selling it as “salvage”. That was the only offer that was made and he is, once again, lying if he tells you anything different.
“I distinctly asked him to either to refund my money or give me another piano, and he refused. Wouldn’t I have been a fool not to have taken such an offer, to have instead, incurred the additional cost of flying to Atlanta? “
York was standing beside my Steinway bemoaning his Gwinnett County courtroom experience
“Maybe it was just plain red neck justice or somethin,’ ” he said.
“Well, it could have been,” I replied, “but the important thing was that Rebecca did her best to expose her side of the story.”
Acting as her own attorney she had prepared her case meticulously, putting together a binder of photographic exhibits, e-mail correspondence between her and the A-440 Piano Company principles, court filed papers, exhibits of her check payment and moving vouchers, plus a very dramatic opening statement that poignantly told her story.
But despite her best efforts, the judge ruled against the plaintiff simply by checking off a box. He was not required to render a written opinion.
It might as well have been Judge Judy’s court of least resort.
York insisted that “it was the straw that broke the camel’s back.”
With considerable time having passed since the trial, Rebecca McGregor is still bitter about what happened, but she’s learned through painful experience that she should never have purchased a piano sight unseen.
I asked her how she would advise buyers who were looking for their dream pianos amidst a slick marketplace of avaricious sellers.
“I would say once and for all, never buy a piano without obtaining the opinion of a certified piano technician, and make sure you look at it and see it for yourself—have someone play it for you, and then touch it with your own hands. You should lay under the piano and look from the bottom up, because there are so many little things that can go wrong. It’s most important that the plate be in stable condition, because everything else can be fixed.”
Rebecca clings to the hope that York can help her get the plate repaired. He’s already taken up the challenge by hauling all of 250 plus pounds to the College of the Sequoias in Visalia where there’s a welding department and students eager to test their mettle with this huge chunk of iron.
“It will be interestin’ to see what happens,” York says. “Ya just never know. They might be able to repair them cracks and then I can just put the strings an’ everythin’ else back in where they belongs. Could work, or not. But let’s hope it does.”
The story never had the happy ending York had hoped for. Sadly, when he carried the plate from the welder at the College of the Sequoias to his awaiting truck, it cracked in two other places and had to be laid to rest.
Additional funeral pictures are shared here: