10 most famous pianos
Our guide to the most famous pianos in the world
Buying a piano is never a small investment. But exactly how big can it get? Here is our guide to the greatest and grandest of pianos - though, technically speaking, a few of these are actually uprights.
Most famous pianos in the world
1. Casablanca ‘As Time Goes By’ Piano
The most expensive piano ever sold at auction (for $3.4 million), this wooden upright with only 55 keys is a hugely symbolic part of the film Casablanca: it’s the piano that Dooley Wilson’s Sam is playing when Ingrid Bergman utters that unforgettable line ‘Play it Sam, play ‘As Time Goes By’.
With its intricate gold and green Moroccan design - complete with chewing gum stuck under the keyboard (a souvenir from one of the actors apparently) - it looks very distinctive. Its sound, however, remains a mystery, given that the piano has never actually been played: while Dooley Wilson was a talented musician, the piano music was played by the offstage pianist Elliot Carpenter while Wilson acted out his part.
2. Steinway & Sons ‘Pictures at an Exhibition’ Piano
Carrying a $2.5 million price tag, this is the first Steinway & Sons piano inspired by a musical composition: Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. Designed by Paul Wyse, it is decorated with images of figures from Russian musical history and folklore, the aim being to tell the story, not only of Mussorgsky’s piano suite, ‘but of everything surrounding it,’ as Wyse put it.
3. Steinway & Songs Fibonacci Piano
Celebrating its 600,000th piano, Steinway decided to make a splash. The result was this 9 foot concert grand, by New-Jersey-based custom furniture maker Frank Pollaro, handcrafted from Macassar ebony and decorated with the iconic Fibonacci spiral, which is itself made from six individual logs of Macassar ebony. It was priced at $2.4 million.
4. Steinway & Sons Sound of Harmony Piano (pictured)
One of the most ornate and opulent pianos in the world, this concert grand, sold for $1.63 million, is decorated with inlays of 40 different kinds of wood, among them ebony, ash wood, tulip wood, amboyna burl, olive ash, birdseye maple and rosewood. Conceived and commissioned by the Chinese art collector and music lover Guo Qingxiang, it features the inlaid image of Peacock, a traditional painting by the Chinese artist She Qi, and took four years to make.
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5. Galaxy piano
One of the oddest pianos ever made, this instrument - valued at $1.36 million - is crafted from fibreglass, plated with gold and finished off with an automatic lid and curved piano keys. I’m not sure how easy it is to play, but it is intended as more than just an instrument: it is a luxury item. And anyone who had trouble playing it manually, can turn on the auto-play system, which is controlled via iPad.
6. John Lennon’s Steinway & Sons Piano
This brown upright might look fairly unremarkable, yet it was on this piano that John Lennon composed some of his first solo albums, including ‘Imagine’.
He bought it in 1970 for just $1300 and looked upon it as his favourite piano, keeping it in his Berkshire studio. On a film made while composing ‘Imagine’, Lennon can be heard saying in reference to the instrument: ‘That’s the one I like best’.
So it’s no surprise that this piano - which even bears burn marks left by Lennon’s cigarettes — is one of the world’s most treasured. It was last sold for $2.37 million.
7. C. Bechstein Sphinx Piano
In 1886, Bechstein made a one-off piano for an exhibition in London. They called it the Sphinx and with its flamboyant trimmings, which paid homage to the great Empire style period dating back to the time of Napoléon Bonaparte, it looked like something from a Disney castle. 130 years later, Bechstein decided to make a present day version. The result was this formidable $1.12 million beast.
8. Alma Tadema Steinway
Commissioned in 1884, this instrument by the artist Lawrence Alma-Tadema was considered by some to be the grandest grand piano of all time. Adorned with over 2000 pieces of mother-of-pearl, it featured an elaborately hand-carved case, top lid and legs as well as a rendering of Sir Edward J. Poynter’s oil painting: ‘The Wandering Minstrels.’ Over 100 years later, Steinway made a replica. It sold for $1.2 million.
9. Blüthner Lucid EXO
Another space-age example, this is one of the world's first fully 3D-printed pianos. Made from composite alloy and panelled with reinforced acrylic, it questions all assumptions about what a grand piano should look like and is priced at about $1 million.
10. Marilyn Monroe’s piano
This white lacquered baby grand piano was one of the most prized possessions of the legendary Marilyn Monroe. ‘One day a grand piano arrived at my home. It was out of condition. My mother had bought it secondhand. It was for me. I was going to be given piano lessons on it,’ the star recalled in her autobiographical book My Story. Sometime afterwards, when Monroe’s mother, Gladys, was institutionalised at the Norwalk Mental Hospital, all of their belongings, including the piano, were taken away. But years later, Monroe tracked it down in an old auction room and bought it. ‘I have it in my home now in Hollywood. It’s been painted a lovely white, and it has new strings and plays as wonderfully as any piano in the world,’ said Monroe at the time. The piano was sold in 1999 to the singer Mariah Carey - a huge Monroe fan - who paid $662,500 for it. ‘It's my prized possession,' she told Vogue magazine.
Photos courtesy of Steinway & Sons.
Hannah Nepilova is a regular contributor to BBC Music Magazine. She has also written for The Financial Times, The Times, The Strad, Gramophone, Opera Now, Opera, the BBC Proms and the Philharmonia, and runs The Cusp, an online magazine exploring the boundaries between art forms. Born to Czech parents, she has a strong interest in Czech music and culture.