Musical Instrument Appraisal

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Musical instrument appraisal

When you decide to sell or insure a musical instrument, a musical instrument appraisal is invaluable

It’s said that the true definition of a musician is someone who will pack $5,000 worth of equipment into a $500 car, then drive 100 miles for a $50 gig. Sound economic actors need not apply.

But when you're ready to sell some of those instruments, probably to fix that cheap car in time for your gig on Saturday, you want to make sure you're getting a fair deal. This is when musical instrument appraisal becomes important to you. Learning to evaluate the quality of an instrument will let you sell knowledgeably and be sure nobody is taking advantage of you.

Finding the list price

Musical instrument appraisal starts with finding the generally perceived value of the type of instrument, combined with the real-world condition of the instrument to decide how much of that full price it can still command. When professionals are doing instrument appraisals, they start by identifying the instrument and looking up the list price.

The price listings are expensive, so you aren’t going to want to buy one unless you regularly appraise instruments. There are some affordable ways to assess the information and get a sense of what an instrument is worth:

  • Orion Musical Instrument Blue Book: With over 35 years in business, this is one of the best sources for accurate information on the value of an instrument and is considered an industry standard. You can look up musical instrument value online for a fee, and this will give you a solid starting point.
  • eBay: If you don’t want to take a bite out of the money that you'll make selling the instrument, you can spend some time researching the sold listings on eBay to get a sense of the final prices that people are paying for similar instruments. The closer you can get to the same kind of instrument in similar condition, the more accurate the estimate you make form this will be. Take note, though, that condition can be very subjective, and your instrument may have problems that the ones in the finished auctions don’t have.
  • Music store: If you don’t want to pay for an estimate of your instruments value, but you don’t trust your ability to research the price yourself, there's still a way to find the blue book value of the instrument. If you take the instrument to a music store and try to sell it, the clerk will look the value up in their book. If you're lucky, a friendly clerk may show you the price in the book directly. More likely you will be given an offer, and you can estimate that the offer will be roughly half the actual value of the instrument. While this estimate may be rough, you have the advantage of a second opinion on the condition of your instrument thrown into the mix.

These methods will give you a jump start on your musical instrument appraisal, giving you a starting point for negotiation or a value for an insurance policy. But the biggest variable in an instruments price comes down to how well it has been taken care of.

The condition of used instruments like these drums is the biggest factor in the value of the instrument

The condition of used instruments like these drums is the biggest factor in the value of the instrument

Evaluating an instrument's condition

Any time you're selling used musical instruments, condition is king. When you buy a new instrument from a music store, even if you haven’t played it yet, it immediately loses its status as brand new and the value drops by half. Any kind of blemish or scratch or wear will further reduce the value, unless the instrument survives long enough to become an antique and these problems them magically transform into "defining the character of the piece."

Although it requires a certain amount of experience to accurately evaluate the condition of a musical instrument, you can give yourself a rough sense using these guidelines:

  • Brand new: This is a status reserved only for authorized resellers, and refers to direct-from-the-manufacturer condition. If you buy an instrument, by the time your card has cleared, it’s no longer considered brand new.
  • B-stock: These are returned or demo instruments, and may have some scratches or blemishes. They're effectively brand new, but don’t have the full value of a brand new instrument.
  • Mint: This instrument is as close as you can get to being brand new without being a reseller. In every other sense, this would be considered brand new, down to the original packaging. A mint condition instrument can be expected to be valued at roughly half of the brand new value, and it only goes down from there.
  • Excellent: This is essentially a mint condition instrument with little to no wear, no damage, and perfect function.
  • Very good: a very good instrument allows a bit more wear and even some cosmetic damage, but nothing that will impact the playability of the instrument.
  • Good: Now we slip into the range of instruments that are well loved, but still have life left. There may be dents and corrosion, maybe even a few small cracks, but the instrument is still playable. 
  • Fair: Once the wear and damage have started to have minor impacts on the instrument's function, it’s considered to be in fair condition. A guitar may have problems with intonation, and notes will drift flat or sharp as you move further up the fretboard, or a drum may have a hint of a buzz. These make great affordable instruments for people just starting to learn, or trying to overthrow the patriarchy from their garage.
  • Poor: These are the real beater instruments; keyboards with keys that just don’t work, guitars that need new tuning pegs to stay in tune. A poor-quality instrument will typically require some repairs before you can use it.
  • Non-functioning: These instruments are intended for refurbishing projects or spare parts. If it was an aged musician, it would be time to give up and start doing feature shows in Vegas.

Of course, these kinds of considerations vary from instrument to instrument. A scuff that would drop one instrument a few levels in condition might be overlooked one that is rare or more desirable. When you start to drift into musical instrument appraisal on antiques, wear is just expected as part of the deal.

Selling a musical instrument

Once you're armed with the rough value and condition of your instrument, you should have a guideline for your insurance policy, but if you’re trying to sell your journey isn’t over yet. There are a few different options for you based on your needs.

The rarity of this antique Chinese guzheng gives it a high value.

When you're dealing with older instruments, especially if they're rare or desirable, you're delving into the range of antique musical instruments appraisal. Antiques can have surprising values that bely their condition or appearance, so you should always bring a vintage instrument to an appraiser, to be sure that you have the most accurate value. If you have any paperwork that shows its provenance, be sure to bring that with you.

If you have the time, you will get your best deals selling your instrument yourself, either directly or online on an auction site like eBay or Craigslist. Be ready to answer questions about the instrument and provide additional pictures as needed. Selling instruments on the Internet will take time and effort, finding a buyer, making a deal and finally shipping, but you will still make more money than you will trading the instrument in at a music store or pawn shop.

If you don’t have that kind of time, you're left with the option of selling the instrument to a music store or pawn shop. The advantage of this approach is that you get to walk away with money in your hand. The disadvantage is that it won’t be that much money.

Any store will need to make a profit on the instrument, so they need to buy it from you as cheaply as they can. Expect them to offer you less than half of the actual value, and don’t expect them to give much ground in negotiations unless you have a particularly desirable instrument. A store will sometimes be more flexible in their negotiations if you are trading in for a new purchase.

The saving grace of this approach is that you don’t have to accept any offer that is made. Before you set foot in the store, have a realistic minimum price that you're willing to drop to, and leave if they aren’t willing to negotiate to meet it. If you find yourself walking away from every offer, it’s time to re-evaluate that minimum.

This is the real dirty secret of musical instrument appraisal, outside of the real high-end items sold at auctions: If you're happy with the money you get, you've found the value of the instrument.

If you find yourself with additional questions about musical instrument appraisal, the qualified Experts on JustAnswer can help you to find the instrument’s actual value, allowing you to negotiate with understanding and avoid taking a loss.

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