Remember the Limited Edition Elton John Signature Series Red Piano, based on the star’s Red Piano extravaganza in Las Vegas, Nevada? Each of the 50 autographed instruments had an electronic player piano system featuring five songs performed by Elton. Two of the Yamaha replicas have been sold by a piano appraisal company based in San Francisco, California, called Piano Finders. They will soon be selling a third one. Meanwhile, Piano Finders co-founder Karen Lile has explained more about her job and her experiences with the limited edition EJ pianos.
EJW: How did you get into the business?
KL: I was married to Kendall Bean, still my business partner and best friend, who was a concert pianist, composer, and piano rebuilder. He’s an expert in both pianos and electronics. We co-founded Piano Finders in 1982.
I am also a producer, and my Uncle Tony was another influence. Tony Terran was always practicing the trumpet. He was in the Desi Arnaz Orchestra on the I Love Lucy TV show, and part of the Wrecking Crew [session musicians who were active in the sixties and seventies].
EJW: Could you explain how you establish the value of an instrument like the red piano replica?
KL: Often, when we inspect an EJ red piano, there may need to be an upgrade in software, some regulation and voicing of the piano, and polishing of the case and hardware, which can cost $5,000 or more.
My job is often that of a detective or genealogist, to discover the lineage of a piano’s stops along the way–transfers of ownership or who played it–and then determine the value those activities may have added to the piano. One of the people who purchased the Signature Series subsequently loaned it to the Grand Ole Opry in Tennessee for a celebrity charity concert. Were he ever to sell it, this would need to be considered. [Trace Adkins and Don McLean were among the performers, and the Make-A-Wish Foundation was one of several beneficiaries].
EJW: You and Kendall also have researched a piano which once belonged to Elton’s friend, John Lennon.
KL: The Lennon-Ono-Green-Warhol piano will be sold by Alex Cooper Auctioneers later this month. It was owned by John Lennon and Yoko Ono, then gifted to their friend Sam Green. Sam then loaned it to Andy Warhol, who displayed it at his Interview magazine office.
EJW: Going back to the Elton John line . . . What do the instruments generally sell for?
KL: We’ve seen them sell for between $150,000-$300,000. The value varies based on the size (they were not all the same size and model), condition, and any provenance collected since they left the factory.
EJW: Lots of people might not realise they weren’t all the same size.
KL: In the beginning, dealers were allowed to sell them direct to the public. But Yamaha took control centrally, and then the buyers pre-ordered the model they preferred and then that became next in the series. We have seen them in 5’3”, 6’3”, and 7’6” lengths so far.
After the series closes out, all the pianos can go up in value. And if Elton were to collaborate with Yamaha again on another series, then the used red piano series might be worth more than the new ones.
EJW: That would be something–to see another EJ/Yamaha offering. How do you think a Million Dollar Piano model (based on his other Vegas residency) might fare?
KL: The cultural capital and symbolic capital of the collaboration with Elton is priceless for Yamaha. I would be open to Yamaha hiring me as a consultant to study and give an opinion about a future series! It would involve some analysis and include information I have collected from red piano owners over the years. I have even received feedback from those who were unsuccessful in their bids to buy EJ pianos that were sold in auctions.
EJW: Does your business partner, Kendall, have anything to add?
KL: He says owners of the red pianos should retain the tablet and pocket controller if they want the instruments to retain their value. The tablet is the original equipment, but it and the pocket controller are now ancient history as far as remotes go, and most people would rather use their iPad or iPhone to control the piano.