The Parlor Songs dot Com Guide to Collecting Sheet Music, Part 2.

Pricing and Valuation

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.
Updated by R. Reublin, May, 2011

The issue of valuation and fair prices is one that is complicated. In almost all respects, there are really no norms for sheet music although some folks have tried to establish them. Basically, whatever someone is willing to pay is the final arbiter of price. But, over time, at least in the auction community, some norms have evolved. There are several variables that seem to drive value:

  • Graphics, (Artwork/Publishing)
  • Category/Topic
  • Composer
  • Personalities/Stars pictured
  • Condition
  • Scarcity

With regard to the graphics variable, in general, high quality lithographs bring the highest prices. The previously mentioned A. Hoen Company lithographs on ET Paull covers tend to bring the highest prices. Those works used to bring anywhere from $10 minimum to as $100 or even more in rare cases. In 2008 one ET Paull sheet was sold on EBay for $1,100 and another for $300. The other variables listed drive the difference in value and price for a given song sheet. (The current, 2001, market has seen similar sheets by Paull sell for less than $10, values have plummeted) Certain artists' work is also important to some collectors, but only in a very limited way. Some of the most prolific artists from the period such as Barbelle, Starmer, E.H. Pfeiffer and De Takacs are often listed as important by sellers on EBay but though they are wonderful works of art, these artists works rarely result in or justify increased value. There are very few collectors who collect based on the sheet music artist with the exception of some otherwise famous artists who produced a few covers. Some of those artists are Winslow Homer, Norman Rockwell, James Whistler, Harrison Fisher, Currier (of the Currier and Ives Lithography team), James Montgomery Flagg, Charles Dana Gibson, Rose O'Neill, Maud Humphries and Maxfield Parrish. Works by those artists are very, very collectible based on their artwork being on the covers. But if Starmer, Barbelle, or other "unknowns" did covers, the value of those sheets usually rests on the topic, star pictured, or composer and not the fact that those artists signed them.

With regard to scarcity, again using E. T. Paull publications as an example, his work, The Burning of Rome is probably one of his most common and you see copies of it all over the place. Nice copies of that sheet can and do sell for $5 or less (mostly less in 2011). On the other hand, his Uncle Josh's Huskin' Dance is seen less often and commands prices upwards of $40 - $50 (now more like $5 - 10.) One word of caution if you are collecting ET Paull sheets, not all of them out there are lithographs. You will find large sheets and small sheets for the same cover. You will even find black and white or grayscale copies of the lithographs. The original lithographs are the real collectibles while the color press reprints or black and white reprints are not as important. Unfortunately, many collectors today are caught up in the ET Paull "mystique" and are paying far too much for a second class cover copy. We previously mentioned a few words on rarity and I want to repeat it here. Most of the songs published over the last century have sold in the millions. For example, After the Ball sold over eight million copies in 1892. Keeping in mind that sheet music is not something people use once and throw away, even after 109, years you can bet there are still thousands of copies of some works out there to be found. Don't assume because a sheet is old, it is rare. Rarity has more to do with the original distribution numbers and popularity of a work than it does age. For example, I have a song that was written on the occasion of President Warren G. Harding's death in 1923 as an elegy to him. That song was published in Ashtabula, Ohio and had extremely limited distribution. It has never been listed in any catalogs and is virtually unknown. As such, it is a truly rare sheet of music. Yet, its composition by a virtually unknown author and rather plain artwork combine to make it just a moderately priced item. My point is that a "hit" on any one of the above variables may or may not result in a high price, in some cases the variables work together, especially scarcity, condition and graphics.

Condition is the wild card that can radically change the price a given sheet will bring. Continuing with the ET Paull examples, if the copy of the Uncle Josh's Huskin' Dance is severely damaged with tears, pieces missing, stains or writing on it, the price can drop to next to nothing, or at least get it down to much lower levels. Many sheets that have survived are in horrible condition. Your objective should always be to find items that are in nice condition. Small tears, cracks and foxing (discoloration with age) are usually acceptable, but watch for major damage or missing parts. That being said, as time goes by, finding sheets in excellent condition becomes less likely. Compromises are necessary and often I will take a sheet in deplorable condition if it means having an important or rare work needed to round out a theme or a monthly issue. Collectors can often be very forgiving of condition if it means getting a copy of a rare sheet. For example, a Joplin rag in lousy condition, if one of the scarcer ones, would probably still bring a handsome price (not necessarily the case in 2011.) In the case of ParlorSongs, we often work with damaged sheets because we can digitally restore them. See our essay on digital reconstruction and preservation from October of 2000 for more information about our process.

Another factor is thematic content. It seems that certain topics and subjects are much more in demand than others,. For example, true instrumental ragtime works, regardless of composer or art, used to bring high prices, sometimes to the point of excess. Our transportation theme this month is another category where prices tended to be very high and there is much contention and bidding on covers that might otherwise be nondescript were it not for the theme. Take the Percy Wenrich work from 1908 seen here. Though a pleasant cover with some artwork, it really is not as stunning as many of the other covers you see here at ParlorSongs. Click on the cover to see and hear the score, click here to hear the MIDI. Yet, this simple little cover, because it is a transportation themed piece, used to bring as much as $25 or more. Transportation music is very desirable to collectors. A good sheet on trains, planes, automobiles, blimps, balloons, motorcycles, jitneys, trolleys and the like are probably worth a minimum of $25 each but now sell for much less. Auto sheets about a particular car brand or train songs about certain rail lines were worth considerably more (just like the railroads in "Monopoly"!). Other themes that seems to be in demand and generate higher prices are American Indian related works, Asian themed works and World War One titles such as we featured from November 2000 through January, 2001. One area of interest that has emerged over the last few years is the category of "blackface" or African-American topical songs. This category has become a hot area and as such, blackface works are bringing some of the highest prices of any category. Sheets with images of stars (famous ones) of screen or stage can also be an interesting and challenging area. According to Sandy, "some of the rarities that command high prices are stars such as Marx Brothers (all four pictured), Mae West, Three Stooges, Laurel & Hardy, Charlie Chaplin, Jolson (only the VERY scarce ones), Garland (ditto), Shirley Temple, Marlene Dietrich and certain others. (Values for extremely rare sheets were in the $100-200 range, now much less.) Scarce movie sheets are in that price range also and these don't necessarily have factors that are obvious." Certain composers also can be in demand, but not all songs by an important composer are equally valuable. For example, a copy of Irving Berlin's Always, is a rather commonplace, low value item but a copy of his more rare, I Paid My Income Tax Today, might bring a very good price. In keeping with the blackface interest, songs by black composers are very collectible.

There really is another variable not listed above, and that is "whatever someone is willing to pay." Sometimes, when a cover crops up that I just must have, I'll bid much more than it is really worth, just because I want it. Sometimes, in selling sheets I am surprised by just how much someone is willing to pay for an item. Well, sometimes it is because of some personal importance or just because maybe that sheet is the last one needed to complete a series. Who knows? This is where price and value often part ways; an item may be nominally valuable but because someone is willing to pay much more than the value, the price ends up much higher than expected. The bottom line here is realize that not all old things are rare and not all rare items are necessarily valuable. Shop around and don't fall for slick marketing by online sellers. Learn about your subject and don't be taken in. The average price of sheet music sold is now less than $3 per sheet. You can build a beautiful collection for a reasonable price. The value of my humble personal collection of about 2,000 sheets is maybe between $7 - 8,000. That works out to an average price of only $3.50 per sheet. Price wise, I would doubt that I could get that much for the collection and I didn't pay anywhere near that to acquire them. Today, so many items go unsold on eBay that what someone is willing to pay is at rock bottom, most of the thousands of sheets listed go unsold.

One final word on valuation. There are a number of collector guides currently published that profess to provide prices of old sheet music. Many of them are based on old and inaccurate information and I would suggest that you not take them as absolute guides. The guides may be useful in giving you an idea of relative values but my experience and that of professional dealers has shown that the price guides are inaccurate and nowhere near the reality of current pricing. If you are going to buy one, use it only as a reference book, not as a hard and fast price guide. Many inexperienced sellers tend to rely on the sheet music price guides in setting prices and as a result, often set unrealistically high prices on their items. Our advice is, don't rely on them.

Preservation, Organizing & Storage

Once you begin to collect your sheets, you will need to be sure to protect them and store them in such a way that they are preserved for the future. Your very first investment should be in some flat plastic bags in which each sheet can be placed . These bags maintain the integrity of your sheets and protect them from handling and damage. One of the leading causes of damage to paper collectibles is handling. Constant shuffling can cause tears and separations as well as wrinkling and staining. Perspiration tends to be acidic and acid can ruin paper in a short period of time. Placing each sheet in a protective bag will maintain its condition for a long long time and preserve it for the future. Bags can be obtained from many outlets on the net. I buy mine from . Their prices are reasonable and they are prompt in shipping. Minimum order is 1,000 bags but they are inexpensive and don't take up much room. I recommend the 10x14 flat poly bag, item 08218 for standard size sheets and the 12x16 flat poly bag, item 08234 for the large, pre-1918 size sheets.

If you have sheets that are deteriorating due to acid decay, it is difficult to stop the decay. There are professional preparations made to buffer the acid content of paper but they are quite expensive. For example, "Archival Mist" an aerosol spray that neutralizes acid in paper costs $40 for a 5 ounce bottle. A cheaper method is to use a high quality buffered paper and place leaves of the buffered paper between the pages of sheets that are showing signs of acid decay (brittleness, excessive darkening and chipping of edges). There are other methods for preservation, once I even heard about soaking the item in a baking soda solution but have not had the courage to try that yet. I fear that doing so might cause the item to dissolve or fall apart!

Once you get the sheets bagged, you will need some sort of container or cabinet for storing them. I use some portable plastic filing carts that I got at Office Max. Each cart has 6 sliding drawers and they can be stacked on top of one another. I file the sheets alphabetically by title. Regardless, it is best to get them off the floor and sorted in some easy to access files or containers, again to minimize handling and to protect them from sunlight and moisture. Aside from handling, the biggest enemies of paper products are moisture and sunlight. Protect your investment. Finally, I keep a database of all my sheets using a spreadsheet application. As your collection grows, it will be more and more difficult to keep track of what you have. Maintaining a record on your computer of your collection will allow you to easily make changes and keep a current inventory. I add sheets to my database as soon as I receive them. I also scan every cover and print off a thumbnail image catalog. I strongly urge you to maintain a good catalog of your collection.

We hope you have enjoyed this article and find it useful. I would like to thank Sandy Marrone and Ann Pfeiffer Latella for their editorial assistance and guidance in making this article more accurate and useful. Sandy and Ann are both prominent collectors and experts in the field of sheet music collecting. Ms. Marrone is a published author and holder of one of the largest private collections of sheet music in the world with well over 200,000 sheets in her collection. She spent many hours of her precious time editing our first and second drafts and added a great deal of valuable content. Ms. Pfeiffer-Latella is the grand daughter of the famous sheet music artist, E.H. Pfeiffer and has assisted us in a number of features including our series on W.W.I music and our feature about the art of E. H. Pfeiffer. We sincerely appreciate their assistance and unselfish donation of their time to help make this article better. To return to part one, click here.

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