Photo of York, piano tuner, standing beside the Steinway auction piano
- Public & Private Auctions
- Estate Liquidations
On an early Tuesday morning, in December, 2008, I spotted an eye-catching Fresno Bee Online ad for an estate auction that listed a “Steiney” (?) grand piano among an Allen theater harpsichord organ; rare, old bound books, some sewing machines, and random furniture. Naturally, the piano grabbed my attention. Only weeks before I’d missed a Steinway “A” that sold for a meager sum on the auction block. I could have kicked myself for ignoring an Internet advertisement that listed a “piano” without further description. Had I known it was a Steinway, I would have pursued it with the force of soldiers doing battle.
Meanwhile my friend, Rebecca McGregor had called to tell me that her friend and neighbor, Gloria Larsen had passed away and left behind two grand pianos: a Steinway and Baldwin.
“Do you want to hear something that will make you really sick?” She said.
I couldn’t imagine what she was about to share.
“Do you know that a gorgeous Steinway grand sold for $7,000 last week at an Estate Sale right by my house and it was my friend, Gloria Larsen’s piano.”
I remembered that Larsen had two, a Steinway grand and a less remarkable Baldwin that were the centerpieces of her expansive living room. In this main part of the house, she also had Chinese paintings, intricately colored bowls and carved Asian wood screens. What a classy lady she was, and a member of our local Music Teachers Association. That’s how I knew her. It was more than a coincidence that the news Rebecca communicated involved a mutual friend.
On a particular occasion, I had the opportunity to play Gloria’s very resonant and well maintained vintage Steinway for a performance of Beethoven’s Tempest sonata. It was at a luncheon sponsored by our MTAC.
No doubt Rebecca’s call was a heads-up reminder that I should not overlook a singular opportunity to view and play a piano like a”Steiney,” that was just two letters removed from the real deal. Its true identity, however, remained a mystery.
With a consuming passion, I carefully followed the Fresno Bee Online ad link to the “Fresno Auction Company” website that listed the piano correctly this time, as a “Steinway” with no further information given. Eager to acquire more specific details, I grabbed my phone, dialed the contact number, and found myself chatting with the big guy, “Steve,” whose image appeared in living color on the web. From the posted photo, he looked like a lean, middle-aged man with a rancher background. My gut instinct was in high gear.
From my pressured speech delivery, so typical of a Bronx native, I knew that Steve the auctioneer sensed my extreme interest in the piano and therefore disclosed, without my having inquired, that the instrument’s finish was “walnut.” What else could I have expected from someone who didn’t routinely deal with fine musical instruments?
Most folks out over this way in the Central Valley, were drawn to a piano’s exterior, no different from how they selected a date on the Internet.
Piano seekers around these parts and into Clovis rodeo country rarely paid attention to what really counted about a piano– its tone, touch and resonance. Their superficial preoccupation with a piano’s cosmetics was what got so many of them into trouble as it had with Rebecca McGregor when she ordered a flashy one Online. Yet at this point in time, before her piano’s cracked plate was officially buried in a moving ceremony, she still harbored a hope that piano tuner, York could resurrect it from the dead.
Meanwhile my appetite was growing in intensity for more specific information about the auction piano.
“It’s the serial number I really need,” I told the auctioneer.
“Could you possibly find it for me? It would be a 6 or so digit number stamped into the cast iron plate in the area of the music rack.”
“I’m not at the location right now,” he replied, “so if you give me your phone number I’ll call you back later in the day.” He was very nonchalant, and in no mood to do anything in a hurry.
On the other hand, I was on pins and needs, barely able to wait another minute to acquire the age of this piano. Was it manufactured between 1905 to 1944 during the golden years of piano building, or did it date to the 60’s or 70’s? There was always a possibility that the the piano could have been manufactured during a period when teflon bushings were installed that caused an uproar among concert pianists around the country. Many complained about clicking noises that emanated from teflon infiltrated actions so Steinway and Sons incurred losses, having to re-bush the affected instruments. It didn’t exactly help the company’s image. At the time CBS was in charge, having bought it out.
I gave Steve my phone number just as he was about to hang up. “Just leave me a message because I might be out of the house or teaching,” I said.
The delay was very disappointing but I utilized the time to shoot off an e-mail to Fujie, one of my adult students, linking her to the Fresno Auction website with the piano listing. I clung to the hope that this might be the piano of her dreams, though she had recently passed up a resonant British Knight piano, as well as a Yamaha studio upright that I had recommended to her. She had told the sellers that she was so used to playing my Steinway at her lessons that she was like a spoiled child who wanted only something of the same or better quality.
“Fujie,” I wrote in an early morning e-mail, “check out this listing for a Steinway grand. I think it might be well worth your time. Maybe we could meet at the location at 8 a.m. on Thursday, during the preview, to try it out.”
I was going to see her shortly for her lesson at 9:30 a.m so I would show her the print-out of the ad and do a Map Quest for directions. I had already planned in my mind to make an advance trip down there so I wouldn’t get lost on the day of the auction event. What could be worse?–going in circles in Old Fig Garden while the piano slipped out of my reach.
Looking back on this whole adventure, I had to ask myself, why I decided to telephone York about the piano. As it played out, he had an equally fervent fascination with the instrument.
“By golly, I needs to get my daughter a Steinway, and I’ve missed a couple chances to git one, so I’m mighty interested in this particular piana,” he said.
“Well, please know, Mr. York that you have formidable competition and a keen opponent.” What was I saying? I didn’t need another piano, and Fujie was pretty stubborn about committing to a purchase of this magnitude though I was hoping this piano would tweak her interest.
“Sure as heck, all’s fair in war,” he replied, leaving out ” love.”
“So, watcha know about this piana,” he asked. “How old is it?”
“That’s exactly what I ‘m trying to find out,” I said. “And I should know a lot more later today.”
“Well I have ta be goin,” York said, “’cause I gotta a few pianas filled with moths that needs treatment.” He was always finding larvae in pianos, and made a sizable part of his living eradicating all traces of it.
Meanwhile Fujie arrived for her lesson after taking her downtown Ceramics class. A beginning piano student, at age 67, she was very enthusiastic about learning the piano, so much so, that she eagerly tackled her scales and arpeggios with enviable energy. Sometimes I wished my teenagers would borrow some of her vim and vigor.
When she arrived I would assign some contrary motion scales starting with thumbs placed at middle C— the hands separated in opposite directions to achieve a balanced, articulated sound. I had decided to register my anticipated excitement about the estate sale piano after her lesson. Otherwise, it would distract both of us from our task at hand.
Fujie seemed to have come a long way since our last session, adjusting the level of her wrist as I had suggested, allowing more freedom of motion in her scale playing. She had also increased her gravitational connection to the instrument.
I loved working with Fujie on a physical/spiritual plane, because she had a voracious appetite for this kind of study, and it was rare to have an adult student who soaked up every last bit of insight that I managed to draw out of myself.
Her lessons were normally prolonged and intense just because we both savored the experience, but today I was distracted by the Steinway and the promise it held for Fujie, if not for myself. Should York turn up at the auction, Fujie would probably over bid him if the piano caught her ear. She had a strong competitive spirit.
Immediately, I thought back on my first meeting with York at the American Cancer Society Discovery store in Fresno.
He turned up one day to detail an 1870’s period piano with a Viennese action that I had fallen in love with and generously donated his appraisal services.
I was impressed with his expertise as he picked through the piano’s action and described its mechanics in detail. From then on, I referred clients to him for tuning, and he would sometimes check on used pianos for me that I had found on Craig’s List and the Bee that needed inspection.
In this way we had became good friends, and he considered me a kind of apprentice, at least in the area of teaching me about the inner workings of a piano and how to evaluate the hammers, strings, and presence of moths.
The Steinway was becoming an obsession. I looked for any excuse to dart over to its location well before the auction. Steve still hadn’t returned my call with the promised information about the serial number so I decided to make a pest of myself and phone him again.
“Steve, any news on the date of the piano?” I asked, anxiously.
“Golly, I still haven’t made it over there, but I’ll call you once I look in the piano and find the number you need.”
“It’s really important that you locate this number as soon as possible, because it will clue me in on the piano’s playing condition.” I knew in my heart that very old Steinways of the vintage variety would likely need significant restoration, and this information would no doubt color my interest in it.
At this point, I was ready to jump in my van, head south to Old Fig, and plunder the grounds people to let me enter the piano sanctuary. I would comb the cast iron plate until I found the valued, ingrained digits. Steve was obviously not as motivated to get the age scoop on the piano. He was as complacent as the average buyer about digging down and doing some instrument related research.
“Okay, so I’ll wait to hear from you,” I said. “In case you forgot, here’s my phone number: (559) — —-”
“Just a second,” he said, “I have another call.”
I knew it was probably about the piano and he might keep my on hold indefinitely. I had no patience to wait through other people’s conversations, so I just hung up and went about my business.
Steve phoned a few hours later and apologized for the delay, but more importantly, he woefully admitted that he had not been able to secure the requested serial number.
“Gosh darn it,” he said. “I just can’t find the information on the plate.”
“Are you sure you looked in the right place?” I answered, nervously.
“It‘s definitely not in the front area by the music rack, as you told me.”
“Okay, is it possible for me to drop over there, and take a look for myself?”
“Well, if you can come down in the next 15 minutes, I’ll be here to let you in.”
“No problem,” I answered. “I have a window before I start teaching later in the afternoon, so I’ll head right over.” I wasn’t going to blow this opportunity to get through the door before anyone else did. I would not only find the serial number, but I’d get my hands on that piano to assess its character and personality.
My Map Quest directed me to go down Palm to Lansing Way, make a left, and then turn right on Wishon. Fujie told me that if I crossed the railroad tracks, I would have overshot Lansing.
I couldn’t miss this turnoff because the directions were clear and straightforward. But knowing my propensity to get lost in my own residential neighborhood, I was bound to hit a snag along the way.
It turned out that Lansing Way was shut off to through traffic. A big “DO NOT ENTER SIGN” greeted me, causing my heart to pound rapidly! How long was Steve going to wait for me? Maybe he would think I was a goofball who never intended to show up in the first place, like so many potential bidders who probably jerked him around.
I had already crossed the railroad tracks despite Fujie’s admonition, and if I continued to head south, I’d end up in the seedy part of downtown Fresno. I had to find a way to make a quick U-turn and head back to the place where I encountered the snag. Panic stricken, I thought about driving right through the “Do Not Enter” street with the bravado of an overanxious buyer.
I circled around Dakota, crossed the tracks and drove, above speed limit to Lansing Way. If I had the braggadocio to drive through the sign, cops would pour in from all parts of the city and County trampling over themselves, such was the disorganization of our Fresno law enforcement agencies.
I don’t know how I managed to think rationally to avoid breaking the barrier right then and there. It came as a revelation that I could back up one street before Lansing Way, turn in, and follow my Map Quest for the rest of the route. Whew! I was in not heading for a jail sentence. It was smooth sailing to a house nestled among the pines.
The “Sold” sign was posted at 3636 Wishon, the listed auction site and the maintenance crew I had imagined would be ardently working, was in full force, preening the property. I had lost about ten minutes going in circles, so I hoped Steve had patiently waited for me. Anxiously pounding on the front door, I heard someone shuffle toward it, and jiggle the lock. Then the mystery resident jiggled the lock again—this went on for all of five minutes, turning me into an off- the-road enraged maniac! I kept shouting, “Anyone there?” No response. What was I going to do?! If I gave up and left, I would be blowing a valuable opportunity to case out the piano. I muttered to myself, “what the heck is going on here—Is this some kind of sick joke?”
I followed a narrow, shrub lined path that led to a garage and entrance to the backyard. I saw garden implements and old, tattered lawn chairs all piled up with numbers on them. At least, I could hedge my bets that this was the right location.
A Hispanic-looking maintenance man greeted me.
“I’m looking for Steve,” I said to him, breathlessly. “He told me to come over and see the grand piano.”
“Oh, okay, you want to see the piano. Just go up those steps, through the kitchen and turn left,” he said, meekly.
I followed his directions to a tee, and plodded through a messy kitchen with torn up linoleum floors and a musty smell. This was no mansion in the Bluffs (A northwest Fresno prime location overlooking a sprawling golf course) It was an earthy home in a rustic terrain. Old Fig Garden was located along the original Van Ness Boulevard, not to be confused with Van Ness extension that led north to the bourgeois section of Fresno, dotted with newer homes on tiny parcels. Old Fig was classier than the northern most tip of Van Ness II. It had stately old homes of immense area, large plots, with mature trees. Some of the properties had long, tree lined driveways. This particular home, already sold, was not as imposing as most along the block and it looked ill-maintained. Steve had mentioned that the deceased owner, Jerry Benet, was a glittery, retired, hairdresser with an impressive instrument collection.
My interest in his “harpsichord” equaled my curiosity about the Steinway piano, but I wasn’t sure if the listing of a “harpsichord organ” was correctly entered in the Fresno Bee ad and at the Fresno Auction Company Internet site. I had never heard of two such disparate instruments lumped together. Each, with its own distinct timbre, would overshadow the other.
Steve greeted me holding an auctioneer’s clipboard. He had earplugs connected to his cell phone. His amazing height, easily over 6’ 5” was so striking, that I imagined him to be on stilts, lumbering around a three ring circus. I had never in my life seen someone bear such resemblance to a bean pole! He looked so lanky and undernourished that I thought he’d come tumbling down from just from a snag in the flooring. Surely he had been offered a spot with Ringling Brothers, or at least a basketball scholarship.
The piano was center stage in a sun deprived living room, still looking regal and beckoning. I couldn’t resist running my fingers over it even before launching an intensified search for the serial number. Instantly, I invited myself into its sound universe.
My Chopin “Ocean” Etude resonated beyond expectation. It delighted in my fortissimos and contrasting pianissimos, producing a velvety tone in all registers. Though not fully in tune, the piano showed character and personality, drawing me repeatedly back into its inner sanctum. My only reservations about this instrument had to do with an assortment of lazy notes that did not adequately spring back. This problem more than likely reflected a glitch in the internal action assembly that would need to be addressed by a technician. Upon closer inspection, I noticed that the hammer felts were deeply grooved suggesting a lot of playing on them. In fact, they were some of the deepest imprints I’d ever seen.
My next order of business was to obtain the true date of the Steinway’s manufacture, so I pushed the music rack back in diligent search of the ingrained numbers just as they appeared on my own piano as “185152,” right beside the tuning pins in the front. Strangely, I found nothing there—or elsewhere from my vantage point, standing in front of the piano bench. I expanded my search in the direction of the tail end of the piano, borrowing Steve’s flashlight, in the process. I felt a creeping embarrassment for not locating the information immediately since I had flashed my multiple music degrees in Steve’s face. He was probably thinking, this lady is just full of herself. But at least he was impressed with my “live” musical performance that didn’t come with an attached resume. “You play really well,” he had remarked.
“Geeze, I’m at a loss to find the serial number,” I admitted, sheepishly. “Do you mind if I use your phone to call my tech associate, Mr. York?” I thought it was necessary to attach myself to York in a business capacity to justify my standing in the world, as a budding piano expert.
Steve was fielding a bunch of calls, so I had to wait a painstaking twenty minutes to make my cellular connection. Meanwhile the clock was ticking and I counted less than a half hour to the start of my late afternoon piano lessons.
I acquired the phone in the nick of time, having York on the line from one of his Fresno boonies locations. As expected, he was working arduously to rid a piano of moths and mice. It made me continuously wonder how often the old man invested his energies in actually tuning and regulating these instruments!
“Hey, Mr. York, you won’t believe this, but I’m down here at the house with the Steinway that‘s up on the auction block tomorrow.”
“Oh, really,” he answered. “You dun got down there in a flash!”
“Well, I’m experiencing lots of frustration trying to locate the darn serial number. It just isn’t to be found anywhere on the cast iron plate. Do you have any ideas for me?”
“Now listen up real carefully—you gotta take a flashlight and go under that there piana, and look for them numbers by the soundboard.”
I had taken this subterranean route before when York had me squeeze under a 7 foot Kawai in search of Mr. Aguardando’s stash of money. It was proof that he had established intimacy with his client and knew everything about him.
Now he was sending me back down there in search of a serial number on a Steinway.
York stayed on the phone as I panned the flashlight across the piano’s underbelly, suddenly spotting the number on one of the wooden cross bars. “Wow! I found it!” I shouted, hoping York could hear me over the cell phone that was only yards away.
Steve loudly applauded me–. “Nice going, Shirley, what’s the number?” York must surely have heard his booming voice.
“199072!” I proudly exclaimed!
York lingered on the line through my travail and made sure to take complete credit for the discovery.
“ Na you tell that fella over there that I found that number for you! Tell him York knew where it was!”
“Whoa,” I said, thumbing through the pages of my Pierce Piano Atlas, this serial number dates the piano to 1920! Holy Moly! It’s the real; thing—a vintage Steinway!”
I didn’t’ want to register too much excitement about the piano, because Steve would get wind of my enthusiasm and jack up the starting auction bid. I had no idea how all this worked, but I knew to temper my words, at least for the time being.
I signed off with York and gave the cell phone back to Steve.
“So what do you think it’s worth?” he said.
I was afraid he’d ask me that question so I answered, reservedly.
“Well, it all depends on what kind of work is needed, so I‘d have to get a tech’s opinion before I would venture an educated guess.”
Steve knew through the estate sale grapevine that Gloria Larsen’s piano had sold for $7,000 only weeks before and he commented that perhaps this piano would go for the same or less. The truth was that Gloria’s piano was far better maintained than this one, and had an established right to sell for more.
The Preview was set for the following day at 8 a.m. two hours before the official proceedings. In the meantime, I planned to ask Terry Barrett, piano tuner and Mr. York to both come down in he early morning to size up the piano and its restoration needs.
Before my piano lessons officially began, I checked my e-mail for developments in the Rebecca McGregor’s cast iron plate case. I knew that York was the least reliable source of unbiased information since it was his idea to remove the 250 plus pound monstrosity and take it from there. If things went sour, Rebecca would have gotten wind of it before I did. York had this ego thing. He had to prove that he could fix anything that needed fixin’ even if the challenge was beyond any human’s capacity to conquer. He probably would not share any backslides related to the already shattered plate, and would keep these to himself as long as he could.
I was staring at McGregor’s latest cryptic bulletin in my inbox: “After Mr. York called me last night, I just cried.” She provided no further details so I shot back a concerned e-mail: “Please tell me what happened.”
A note from Fujie drew my attention next: “Subject: Piano”
“Shirley as much as I would like a REAL piano, I am not ready to spend thousands of dollars for one right now. I’m afraid to look at the Steinway since it will be very tempting to bid on it tomorrow. As a result I will not even check it out. Thank you for thinking of me but I really need to focus on my immediate needs. Fujie.”
As I read her e-mail I experienced a deep reservoir of disappointment. Maybe she was right to steer clear of something so tempting. But at the same time, I couldn’t help but think that this pass on the Steinway was Fujie’s dream deferred.
Terry Barrett hovered over the soon to be auctioned Steinway, 1920 while my tape recorder was running to capture his comments for posterity. I considered him to be one of the most able tuners in the Central Valley if not beyond. Partially blind, he biked to his tuning jobs, and had more than overcome his handicap by using a very powerful magnifying glass to carefully inspect the intricacies of a pianos’ complex interior.
After my Steinway piano had suffered damage at the hands of another less able tuner in 1989, I had decided that only Terry could be intimate with my Steinway. That was, of course, after Dale Erwin of Modesto, a brilliant rebuilder, had given it a complete overhaul to perfection.
York had breezed through the Old Fig house, before Terry, and he bumped into me as he was leaving. “So what did you think of the piano, Mr. York?” I asked.
“Well, it’s definitely got some problems that needs workin’ on.”
“Can you be more specific?” I said.
“That there area on the plate is fulla dirt and that layer of dust ‘cumulated can affect the tone.”
“So you’re telling me, the muck on the plate, if cleaned will improve the tone, sizeably?”
“Well, that’s one of them issues that needs to be looked at.”
“Mr. York, I noticed the hammers were very, very grooved so do you think they need replacement at this point in time.”
“Geeze, without pullin’ out that there action,” I kin hardly say. But right at this minute I’m off to use Decon on a church piana a.s.a.p or some mighty aggressive mice is gonna chew up them felts!”
Terry thankfully lingered to answer more of my questions.
“So do you think any real hammer replacement is required here, Terry?”
“Well they’re worn for sure. I mean I declare them pretty well shot. But you can live with them and still get some years out of them. I can certainly reshape them by evenly filing them. But the bigger problem is the corrosion between the notes and that’s what’s causing the lazy feel. As a temporary stop gap measure I would use some Vertigris repellant –just a surface application and not a real cure. I’d really have to get into the center pins to do a more thorough job.”
“What about the moths, Terry? Should we be concerned about a past or future infestation?”
He chuckled. “I’ve seen them eat a bit, once in a while, but hardly that much. There’s actually cyanide in the felt so that if they ingest too much, they’ll die!”
“Hey, I see a critter over there under the strings,” I said, with concern. “Maybe it’s a decomposed moth.”
“Go ahead, tell everybody about the moths and keep the price down,” he said, wryly.
“Now what about this note, C, eight notes above middle C? I just noticed it warbling today. Can’t figure it. It went bad overnight, because it was perfect yesterday when I played a few selections. Can a note go sour that fast?”
“Well, either somebody messed with it or it slipped. If it slipped then you got a real repair problem.”
“Can you answer one or two more questions before I let you go? Let’s say you put a ton of rebuild work into this piano–Number one, what would it cost and what do you estimate the percentage of improvement from the restoration?”
“I’d guess $10,000 in repair work is needed, and you’re looking at about 25% improvement in tone and feel.”
I was alone with the piano again, though bidders were slowly but surely trickling in. Before long there was an audience of listeners, as I played the piano with an abandon that drew more than a few toward the piano. Most of the attention was focused on the finish. One woman leaned over me and gawked at the music rack, running her fingers over it. “Do you know if it’s walnut,” she asked. “I stopped playing a Bach Prelude, to reply. “I think it’s what they term, “dark walnut.” I raised my voice for emphasis.
I had placed my portable tape recorder next to the piano, to preserve this musical experience on audio but I had no intention of perpetuating the more mundane remarks of intersecting bidders.
One woman placed her cell phone above my head telling her mother how wonderful the piano sounded. Another fellow who looked around 70, insisted he wanted to acquire the piano in order to donate it out to a church. He wasn’t sure which one yet. A middle aged, neatly dressed man named “Craig,” said he needed to replace his Yamaha with a higher grade piano. He definitely eyed me, suspiciously as a competitor for the prize!
Despite Fujie’s declined interest in the piano, I decided I would hang in there and bid on it myself though I hardly had the funds to back it up. I’d have to electronically wire money from an IRA into my sparse checking account and in the process blow my whole financial future for having one more dream piano added to my growing collection.
A full 4 hours before the piano would go on the block, I decided to go home to snatch a bite.
Within twenty minutes I was wolfing down a mouthful of tofu on whole wheat toast, when suddenly I heard 4 loud thumps on my door—the drumbeat was a giveaway. It gave off a tribal resonance that suggested York was in the neighborhood.
Why on earth was the old man coming over here in the middle of the day? Surely he had not completed his mouse safari.
I expected he would be toting a bag of oranges but this time he handed over a small sample of apricots intermingled with shelled walnuts.
“So what’s up, Mr. York. Have you Deconned out the rodents in that there church?” Sometimes, I found myself inadvertently talking like him.
“No, I had to move on to a school with an Everett spinet that was smashed ta pieces. An outa control kid took a hammer to it.”
“Now what exactly did they expect you to do about it?” I asked.
“Alls I kin say is I tooks some matchin’ keys from my pick-up and glued in a few replacements. It’s a big job requirin’ a few trips, but I told ‘em this is what I’m chargin’ to get them keys back in playin’ condition.”
He always told me that school pianos took the most punishment and were his worst nightmares next to huntin’ down rats, of course.
“So you stayed over there at the auction?” he asked.
“Yeah, I spent about two hours horsing around with the piano and it just kept growin’ on me,” I answered.
“Now, listen up, I want to make you an offer you can’t refuse. If you was to bid on that piana fer me, I would write ya a check for the amount of sale and an extra couple hundred thrown in. That way ya kin write the whole thing off as a tax deduction.”
The whole hair-brained idea made no sense and it was a form of money laundering.
“Sorry, Mr. York, but if you want that piano badly enough, you’ll have to drop over there and throw out your own bid.”
“Well, even if I got myself over there, I’d offer no more than $4,000 ‘on it, cause that there piana is so fulla dirt it would take my filter queen, on full power, to blow it out,” he said.
Terry Barrett, meanwhile, insisted that the dust accumulation in the Steinway piano had absolutely no influence on its tone. The same was echoed by other local tuners such as Goolsby and Chester Barnett. A few other local technicians had no opinion at all.
I arrived at 3636 N. Wishon just about 20 minutes before the piano was up on the block as bidders and interested onlookers were amassing. There was no doubt the piano was a magnet for big attendance as it sat nobly, center stage, throwing off a shimmer. Among the crowd stood Rebecca McGregor whose aristocratic presence was immediately communicated. Though she had granted me a telephone interview detailing her whole ordeal with the Proksch piano, I had never met her in person. (Her journals were forwarded to me by mail)
An attractive, middle aged woman, she had written all those poignant e-mails to Vieilliard and Ron, setting them straight in very polished prose. Tentatively, she edged toward me, saying, “Shirley? I’m Rebecca.” We shared instant chemistry between us and soon found ourselves engaged in lovely musical conversation. She had heard me play some selections on the Steinway and remarked about its beautiful resonance. “You have to look beyond the warbling notes,” she said.
“Yes, it’s a very valuable instrument, despite its bad tuning and needing repair,” I replied.
Just then we were both distracted by a Frankenstein look alike with plastered down, thinning hair who lunged toward the Steinway piano. He grabbed the bass strings with his bare hands, plucking them with such force, that his actions threatened the piano’s safety! He did it again and screamed, “I can buy all of you out! You just wait!!” At that point he threw his business card in my direction and it landed on the piano rack. I noticed his imprinted name, “Les Graham.” According to York, the sleazeball owned a piano warehouse in a seedy part of town by the scrap metal yards. York claimed Graham was a drunkard with an unsavory past. “You don’t wanta meet up with that there fella without an escort,” he insisted. I yelled at the drip to stop fiddling with the strings and Rebecca McGregor chimed in. Before long, the greasy looking character retreated to an area beside the Allen Organ in an adjacent room and shut his foul mouth.
Steve stood by with his amazingly towering presence and identified the Steinway & Sons as item number “404.”
“This is the last lot of the day,” he announced. “It’s a 1920 piano, with a matching bench, dark walnut finish, okay? Its serial number is 199072. It’s an M, five foot seven grand.
“Alright on the Steinway & Sons, we’re going to start the bidding. I have 3 thousand dollars goin’ on it. Does somebody want to bid $3500 on the Steinway?
“3500, now 4 thousand (my bid) I have 4 thousand, 4500 bid, 4600, 5,000, 5250, 5500, (my bid again), 5750, we aren’t all done? 6 thousand, 6100 the bid, now 6200, now 6300—I have 6 thousand three hundred. Are we all done at 6300 dollars? Going once? 6400, now 6500, now 6600? Are we all and all down—6600 now 6700, 6900—7000, 71, 72, now 73, 74, 75, 77, 78. ” An older man was throwing outmost of the bids. 7900 was ‘Richard’s’ bid, a middle aged fellow Steve repeatedly named during the proceedings. He was vying with the older man for bid control. “7900,” the old man shouted. “8 thousand,” countered Richard.
“Can you play the piano?” the older man sarcastically asked his rival. Steve continued in a booming voice, “8 thousand the bid, 8250, 8350, 8450, 85, 86, 88, 89, 92550, now 9500.” It was definitely a battle between two men because everyone else had dropped out. As far as I was concerned the bidding had gone way out of control!
“9750, 10 thousand, now 10 thousand, now 11 thousand, 12, 12 and ½, 13, 13, 500, now 14 thousand, the bid—14,250, 14,750, 15, 15 thousand one, 15 thousand, 2—15 thousand 3—15 thousand 4 hundred, are we all done at 15,400. 15 thousand five-hundred’s the bid, 15 thousand, 6, 7, 8 —15 thousand 9 hundred, 16,000! 16 thousand’s the bid. Are we all done at 16 thousand dollars?” The older man topped out at 16K. Richard surrendered.
“SOLD out at sixteen thousand dollars to number 411!” Applause!
All the dropouts looked unhappily resigned to the outcome. I, for one, didn’t feel very bad about the bidding at all, since my offer was trampled early on, and the outcome was far from a squeaker. If the piano had sold for $5,600 or $6,000, I would have felt gypped out of a solid chance to be a contender. But two men of means raced down the track leaving the rest of us behind.
The older man said he would fulfill his promise to donate the Steinway to a church of his choice. He had also successfully bid on the aristocratic looking Allen Organ that had no electrical power, and sat there, lifeless. Ironically, I hadn’t observed one person asking to try it out to see if it worked.
Steve later told me that rats had chewed up all the wiring. Was this a budding buyer beware story, a sequel to McGregor’s nightmare? I wish York would have checked the organ for rodents during the auction preview, but he was too busy detailing the Steinway. Looking back on it, he would surely have said, “I told ya so!”