05 December 2014

Piano of Mystery Sold

by Dixon Hill

The Monday before Thanksgiving, a very special piano was auctioned off at Bonhams in New York.

Yes, this is primarily supposed to be a mystery writing web site, but sometimes inanimate objects are central to mystery plots.  Small, odd little objects may sometimes even point a detective to perceive the complex Rube Goldberg device behind a locked-room mystery.

Pianos also fit here in SS, I believe, because we have authors here who are just as passionate about their music as they are about their writing.  This auctioned piano combines mystery, adventure and music -- along with love.  In fact, it played a central role in all four at one time.  A seminal role, one might say. Which is perhaps not abnormal for certain inanimate objects.

This is the small, 58-key upright piano, probably made in 1927, that a production company altered slightly in 1942, by relocating some hinges, so that the character Rick Blaine could hide letters of transit inside.

That's right.  It's the piano that drummer Dooley Wilson, playing "Sam," sat at when Ingrid Bergman, as "Ilsa Lund," told him, "Play it, Sam.  Play, 'As Time Goes By,'" in the movie Casablanca.

This is the one.  He's not really playing, but he is singing.
Hiding the Letters of Transit

How central can an inanimate object really be to the heart of a film, or the plot of a novel?

Well, let's look at just a few of the roles this piano (and its brother) played in Casablanca.
"Play it for me, Sam."

The movie's "brother piano" used in flashbacks.

In the end, the piano reportedly sold for $3,413,000.00 which included a 12% commission.

I have no idea who bought it, though I've searched the web.

You can click on this New York Times article here for more details.

Mystery lovers might also like to know that a certain Maltese Falcon has the honor of having grossed more at auction, than any other movie prop, reportedly landing  $4,085,000.00 during Bonham's TCM auction last year. (This statistic should not be confused with the "overall record for a piece of movie memorabilia," which goes to the Aston Martin [$4.6 M] driven by Sean Connery's "Bond" in Gold Finger.

See you in two weeks,
— Dixon


Dixon Hill said...

I'm sorry not to be able to say who won the piano bid, I don't think Bonham's released the name. If anyone knows, please don't be shy about sharing.


Anonymous said...

That piano was as much an essential character to the story as the people and the place were. Thanks for bringing that to my attention, as I had never thought about it that way before!

Eve Fisher said...

The piano in "Casablanca," the falcon in "The Maltese Falcon" - other objects of desire? The ruby slippers of "Wizard of Oz" went for a hefty sum; How about Scarlett O'Hara's dress from GWTW? Or even Carol Burnett's in the send-up WWTW?

Dixon Hill said...

Glad to be of assistance, Anon.

Eve, the first time I saw Carol Burnett in that curtain-dress, I completely lost it. Thanks for making me remember.


Herschel Cozine said...

I don't know about you but when I see Ingrid Bergman standing by the piano I don't see anything else, including the piano.

Robert Lopresti said...

> If anyone knows, please don't be shy about sharing.

It was me, Dixon.

Are you familiar with Hitchcock's term, The MacGuffin? The object everyone in the movie cares about but the audience doesn't? The piano doesn't qualify but the letters of transit do, and the falcon, and the ruby slippers.

Jeff Baker said...

Wow! Hey, a photo of the piano with that little black statuette sitting on top of it would be fantastic!

Leigh Lundin said...

I agree with Herschel!

$3.4-million! That is an astonishing story, Dixon. If I had silly money, I think I might prefer the piano over the Maltese Falcon.

If I may offer a marginally related note…

The late Hugh Gough was a renown maker of early period instruments– harpsichords, clavichords, pianofortes, and lutes. I knew him in the 1960-1970s, a close friend of my aunt. At that time he charged a flat $1000 for any custom-made instrument, a task so time-consuming he barely kept afloat. His instruments were so highly sought after, they rapidly increased in market value.

At some point in the 1960s, a customer asked him to create a secret panel. My aunt suspected its purpose was to hide drugs, but Hugh adopted secret panels into his keyboard instruments as sort of a trademark.