The Parlor Songs dot Com Guide to Collecting Sheet Music
Note to the reader: This article was first written in 2006 when the sheet music market was at a peak as far as prices paid. This 2011 update reflects a market that has hit rock bottom with prices as low as I've ever seen and sheet music that would have been snapped up a few years ago going unbid for and remaining unsold. Now is a great time to collect sheet music at bargain prices. As with most things in our economy, when better times arrive, hopefully values for collectible sheet music will improve as well.
We have seen a wide range of sheet music over the years at Parlorsongs.com and we have had many questions from our readers about collecting sheet music. Questions like: Where do I get sheet music? How much does it cost? What makes some more valuable than others? This guide has been written to help answer those questions and others that you may have about collecting sheet music.
Introduction, about sheet music collecting.
It seems that collectibles take just about any form, from Mickey Mouse memorabilia to sports cards and anything else you can imagine. For any collector, finding new items and building a collection that covers the full range of a product or item can be a rewarding as well as a frustrating task. Sheet music represents both opportunities and challenges that many other collectibles do not. The opportunity lies in the rich, wide variety of sheet music that has been printed and distributed over the years. With well over two centuries of printed music to choose from, you can be guaranteed that your niche will provide plenty of opportunity to add to your collection. The fact that certain eras of sheet music produced millions of copies makes it relatively easy to amass a fairly large collection in a relatively short period. The challenges come in finding sheets in good condition, finding some of them at all and in getting them at reasonable prices.
You can specialize in just about any period, style or type of music and still successfully build a good collection. For example, some collectors might choose to focus only on a single composer such as Scott Joplin, sheets with movie or stage stars featured or even sheets by a given publisher such as Vandersloot (although collecting by publisher is not common). The most prominent example of a focused specialty is the collection of E. T. Paull lithographs. Though many ET Paull publications are easy to find, there are some that are exceptionally rare, and the joy of the hunt for the them can exhaust much time as well as your pocketbook. Other collectors focus on themes. An example is our transportation theme in this month's feature ( February, 2001), which can result in a wonderfully beautiful collection of covers and exciting music. Here is yet another great transportation themed song, Motor King. The cover of this work by E. H. Pfeiffer is a striking example of the wonderful artwork that makes these songs much more than music, but fine American art also. This song was published in 1910. Click on the cover to see and hear the score; click here to listen to the MIDI version. In this one cover, the artist managed to capture virtually every motor transport mode available at the time. This song by the way, originally was written as a piano solo march but became so popular the composer recruited Jack Drislane to add lyrics and it was reissued in this song version. As with many songs, Motor King can be found in more than one cover graphic. Often, songs were reissued and you may find several different editions of a given song.
In some cases, people collect the sheet music mainly for the art or cover theme. At ParlorSongs we are just as interested in the music, for we believe that it is as much a statement of our history as the artwork on the sheets. In addition to cover or title themes, many people choose to focus only on musical styles. For example ragtime, fox-trot, jazz or marches. You can also collect by era; 1890's, early 1900's, 1940's etc. It seems the possibilities are endless. Generally, each era has distinctive artwork and you can find various styles of art (as well as music) across the board in sheet music. The earlier years, prior to 1890 or so, are marked by engraved covers and those with artwork comprise a smaller percentage of the totals issued. Take a look at the cover from the 1858 song, Down In Alabam', included in our February, 2001 feature as a part of our discussion of The Old Grey Mare. This cover is typical of much of the music from that period. In spite of what might appear as a rather plain cover, the fancy type or print, often elevates interest in certain topical sheets and as a result, they can become valuable collector items. Of course there are still many beautifully illustrated sheets to be found from the mid 19th century, but they are less common. Some have full color illustrations such as one of my favorites in my personal collection, The Leslie Polka, from 1865. Others have actual photographs attached to the cover. At the time we first wrote this article in 2006 we said "these sheets are generally quite scarce and can be rather expensive, often selling for $75 or more per sheet." However now, in 2011 the sheet music market has virtually collapsed and prices are very low, sheets that often sold on eBay for near $100 are going for less than $10-20. There are many sheets from the period with Victorian prints also pasted on the cover and though pleasant to look at, are not as valuable as the color or photo illustrations. For some examples of mid-to-late 19th century illustrations on sheet music, revisit our January, 2000 feature on "The Dead Zone" of American music. Next month ( March, 2001), in our feature about songs of the sea and ships, we will have at least one or two pieces from that period with artwork. As far as 19th century sheets go, some of the most valuable are Confederate issues, full color Civil War sheets and those relating to technology, political events, actual events such as disasters and minstrel sheets.
The main point is that just about any theme or combination of themes is possible. Whatever personally interests you will do you just fine. We at ParlorSongs tend to focus on the period from around 1860 up to the early 1920's and as you have seen, we collect virtually all subjects and styles. Of course, one reason for that is so we can bring you the widest possible range of music and artwork. Another reason is the copyright limitations that one encounters with works published after Jan. 1, 1923. It is also because we thoroughly enjoy all the music from this period. Our objective is to preserve both the art and the music, your interest might be just the art. However, keep one thing in mind if you collect for the art only, don't do as some people do and intentionally separate the cover, frame it and discard the music! Doing so completely destroys any future collecting value and is simply a terribly destructive practice! One last thought before we move on: collecting sheet music is very rewarding and though we have a lot to say about values and costs in this essay, it is important that we say that it is the enjoyment of collecting and the preservation of these important historical documents that drives us and most collectors. The beauty of the sheets and the music is what enchants us. Of course, in doing so, one can amass a collection of formidable value, but that is not the end to which most collectors aspire. At Parlor Songs, the value means little to us, as is the case with most serious collectors.
Sources of sheet music
OK, so you have decided to collect and now you wonder, "where on earth can I find sheet music?" If you are willing to look, you will find it just about anywhere. One of the most inexpensive and fun methods is through estate sales or home goods auctions. Usually, the best finds are in older towns where classic original homes are still in existence. Usually the "midtown", older areas are where you will find the greatest lots of old music. In most cases, estate sellers are not really tuned in to the value of old sheet music (more on that later) and tend to look on heaps of old music as trash. As a result, you can sometimes find a treasure trove of music for a song --- humm, would that be songs for a song? Though midtown older neighborhoods are good sources, sometimes isolated rural area sales are great sources too. Often the older rural homes had no other entertainment except the salon piano so they may have an attic full of songs.
Another source is often antique shops or even collectible shops if you have them. The problem with these locations is that they are more profit-motivated and prices will tend to be higher. Most dealers understand the value of certain collectibles and it is likely that they will be selling items individually priced rather than in bargain lots. Generally, if they do have bargain lots, they will tend to contain common items that are not significant. That is not to say that you cannot find important additions to your collection in shops, only that you are dealing with a more sophisticated seller who will tend to price items more closely to market value. However, in our present economy (2011), market value is significantly depressed and bargains are readily available. That's fair, not a thing wrong with it. At some point, price is not as important as acquisition. I know that when there is a specific item I need to round out a part of my collection, or to make a monthly feature better, I'll often pay much more for it than I usually would.
A really fun and exciting source for sheet music are flea markets. Flea markets have become a national past-time (obsession?) and sometimes present you with opportunities to obtain large lots of covers at low prices, or the opportunity to "pick through" a lot and be selective. In many cases flea markets can be a better source than estate sales. One of this country's most prominent collectors and experts on sheet music, Sandy Marrone has amassed a mind-boggling collection of over 200,000 sheets, many of which she has found in flea markets. Sandy graciously assisted us with this essay and said "We've made a point of going to flea markets all over the country and I've found music at flea markets in California, Black Hills (Dakotas), Nashville, Maui (Hawaii), Arizona, Omaha, Des Moines (Iowa), St. Louis, Chicago, Atlanta to name a few, and all over the Northeast. I always go to a lot of them in London and also those in Paris. I do far better at flea markets than house sales, etc. Well, let me rephrase that. I'm sure I'd get better music cheaper at house sales, etc. but the chance of me finding any at all at those places is too slim. If I go to a flea market, I ALWAYS find some sheet music to look at. Maybe it's not always anything worthwhile, but at least it gives me a 'fix'!!" We sincerely appreciate Sandy's guidance in preparing this article, especially her excellent editorial assistance and generous advice. We do want to point out that she acted in an advisory capacity and any errors and mistakes in this essay are ours, not hers! Sandy also suggests watching for auction notices. "Any auctions that mention pianos or music cabinets are sometimes apt to have some sheet music. You can even go to used and rare book shops and find sheet music."
A main source these days is the Internet. You can not only find dealers on line who sell sheets but the most lively market right now is the online auction. In many respects, the online auction has really opened up the sheet music market and made sheet music much more available than ever before. It has also been good for sellers, creating outlets that never existed until now. I have checked them all out and it seems that the largest selection and variety at this time is on EBay. I check every day and have found many excellent sheets at reasonable cost. (Even more so now) You encounter good sellers and bad sellers on-line so be sure to check the sellers' feedback if the auction site has a ratings system. You also find the same sort of people on line that you find on the street. You find honest ones and dishonest ones. You find gougers and cheaters as well as fair dealing sellers, so, as in any venture, "caveat emptor" is an important point. Here is a great transportation subject song, Taxi, I obtained through an EBay seller at a great price. Listen to this interesting 1919 piece while you read on about collecting. Click the cover for the scorch score, click here for the MIDI.
I recommend EBay as an auction site as they do have a system for policing their sellers and you can easily view a seller's feedback from previous transactions. In spite of that, there are a number of methods that I have observed that tend to either misrepresent music or shall we say, fail to disclose everything. I could spend an entire issue on this alone but for the sake of brevity, I will just outline some of the things to watch out for that could result in a less than satisfactory transaction.
Finally, even if it is something you really want, be careful that you don't pay way too much for it by getting into a bidding war. Decide the maximum you want to pay and bid that amount. If you lose, chances are the same item will come up again later. Many sellers get greedy and overprice their items. If you see a sheet and think it is overpriced, others will realize it and the item will go unsold. When this happens, the item will often show up later at a better price. Don't bid on overpriced items unless it is an absolute "must have". And do shop around! You often see the same item listed by different sellers for vastly different prices. Of course, pricing is sensitive to condition as well as a number of other factors. For that, let's go to part two.
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