First Epoch - America's First Popular Music Epoch 1768-1887
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Demand, Rarity and Condition – the Mystery of Worth

by Kevin Lynch


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This site is exclusively concerned with collectible sheet music, those items the hand reaches for at a paper convention, the eye searches for on an Internet auction. Defining collectibility can seem to be difficult in any market where a prime piece sells for one thing one month and a good deal more the next. There’s a lot of fluctuation in sale prices in this universe of paper. In any auction, if the buyer doesn’t show, the price doesn’t jump.
 
Leaving aside any designation of price or dollar worth, what is it that brings appeal in a folio of 19th century sheet music? Especially if we’re speaking of a collector’s point of interest and what he or she prizes. The pictorially illustrated title pages have had a lot to do with increase in demand for 19th century sheet music. Quality inks, good rag paper, talented lithographic artists and important moments in American history captured in song and displayed with visual allure – these ingredients have gone a long way to create interest. First editions of any notable paper issue have always brought attention. In our field, first appearances of certain important songs, images of individuals, discoveries, inventions, advances, social moods and mores; these have always been significant.

Constitutional Centennial March (1887)
Rarity has been a big driver for demand and value. A first edition and initial state of Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer, composed shortly before his death, is sought after as much for its rarity as for its place in musical history. Many, many important mid-19th century pieces appear to have fewer than 50 or 100 copies extant, in private hands or archives. Many may be ‘single digit rarities’ with less than 10 copies known to exist. They make the T-206 Honus Wagner tobacco issue, that million dollar baseball card, seem relatively available by comparison.

Fleurs D'été (1843)
W. Sharp lithography
The nature of this collectible and its place upon the piano have led to its demise. The rifling that a piece of music absorbed in repeated playing left most copies badly worn. It’s staggering the number of water stains that appear. The top of the piano must have been a very common station for drinks as well as music. Foxing, age toning, taping and the stains from grubby fingers all had an impact on condition. Most 19th century music that has survived in good shape has been bound by its original owner and thus preserved. Unbound copies of important issues in very good condition, with an unsplit spine, are extremely difficult to find.
We have in this musical paper world a host of fascinations. Winslow Homer lithos blend with gorgeous Sarony, Major and Knapp chromo-lithographs. Early editions of the Star Spangled
Banner exist alongside important music from the Revolutionary War. Suffrage items, iconic images of slavery and abolition, the struggle for emancipation, mingle with Stephen Foster ‘firsts’. The growth of American popular music, its shaping, its percolation through the years and mirroring of Victorian society, left behind these written records of staffs and notes, often with a lithographic flourish on the front. Its composers and pictorial artists did what Hamlet advised the players do:
“To hold as ‘twere the mirror up to nature: to show virtue her feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure.”