In the Wind. . . .

June 6, 2018

Trash or treasure?

My great-grandfather Cheney was a silk trader in the first years of the twentieth century. He and his seven brothers built a large and prosperous business with weaving mills and a distribution center in Manchester, Connecticut. Reproductions of several original Cheney Silk advertisements that were published in Ladies’ Home Journal and The Saturday Evening Post hang on our walls today. Austin Cheney died decades before I was born, but his wife, my great-grandmother, lived to be 104 years old, and was part of my life until I was in my thirties.

She was born in 1890 (Brahms was 57 years old) and lived long enough that my two sons, her great-great-grandchildren, sang at her funeral. She told stories of traveling to China with her husband for the silk trade, around Cape Horn on the last clipper ships. It was our tradition that my parents would take my three siblings and me to visit her every year on Columbus Day, where we would romp through the enormous house (there was a playroom with a swing on the third floor) and be treated to an elegant lunch at her magnificent dining table. She grew up in Brooklyn Heights, in an age when that was one of the fanciest neighborhoods in New York, and her inbred accent had a hilarious note to our modern ears. Adjusting the lunch menu to suit the pleasure of grade-school children, we were served “Hamboigers,” as though they were being hawked by vendors at Ebbets Field. And lunch was always “Poifectly grand!” After lunch, she would smoke her one daily cigarette. When she reached her 100th birthday, she increased that nasty habit to two each day, and sure enough, she died a few years later.

Her house was enormous, and it was richly decorated with huge dark wood furniture, heavy draperies, and the countless priceless ornaments that would be gathered over a lifetime of trade with China and Southeast Asia—“the Orient,” as she put it. Our Columbus Day lunch was served on porcelain dishes with elaborate patterned edges and gold-leaf trim, and our (powdered!) milk was poured from a cut crystal decanter into matching stemware. The pantry that connected the dining room to the kitchen was stacked with endless varieties of such tableware. I knew much of the same stuff in my grandparents’ house, and inevitably, several sets wound up in my childhood home and later, in my own adult homes.

Keeping in that tradition, in preparation for my first wedding, my fiancée and I chose our own china pattern and received a generous collection of beautiful dishes that we seldom used. Today, Wendy and I favor more contemporary handmade china, and while we still have some of those fancy old sets, we never use them. Furthermore, our children have no interest in them. There are boxes of dishes in our basement, still taped and labeled from when we moved almost twenty years ago. They are white elephants, and I have no idea what we will do with them.


Visions of sugarplums

If I have learned nothing else in nearly twenty years working with the Organ Clearing House, I have learned that a vintage pipe organ can be the ultimate white elephant. In today’s money, it costs hundreds of thousands, even millions of dollars to build a new organ, but older redundant organs are routinely given away, and seldom sell for more than $20,000. I have dashed the hopes of many widows who have approached me, asking for help to sell the organ that their husbands had stored in their garages. I receive a few photos by email, see odds-and-ends of organ pipes, feet sticking up higgledy-piggledy out of cardboard boxes, and reply that I see no resale value. “He told me it was worth hundreds of thousands of dollars,” or, “My car has been sitting outside in the snow for thirty-five years.” I have heard some pretty bitter comments.

I also hear regularly from real estate developers: “We bought a church building and are converting it to condos. . . .”
They have done some research into the value of organs and expect to pay a third of their mortgage when they sell the organ. “Oh, and by the way, we’re starting demolition next week.” That organ is worth exactly nothing, unless Mr. Developer is prepared to pay to have the organ dismantled and stored. A lot of good organs have been destroyed under those circumstances.

Mr. Developer might suggest that he is willing to give it away in return for a suitable tax deduction. Fair enough. But he is likely imagining that an assessment of the organ would show a number approaching the cost of a new organ. The IRS knows that trick. IRS Form 8283 allows a taxpayer to declare the value of a non-cash contribution. That category covers a wide range of gifts from artwork to real estate, and a pipe organ is under that blanket. The form includes a field where an appraiser enters the Fair Market Value (FMV) of the gift and signs his name to it, attaching a description of the credentials that qualify him to appraise a pipe organ. The instructions that accompany Form 8283 defines FMV as “the price a willing, knowledgeable buyer would pay a willing, knowledgeable seller when neither has to buy or sell.” If I was selling an organ to an organbuilder, asking $900,000 because that would be the cost of the same organ new, I would take some abuse and not sell the organ.

If I appraised an organ for a price approaching that of a comparable new organ, it would not take an auditor or tax attorney very long or very much imagination to open the website of the Organ Clearing House and look at the asking prices of a half-dozen available organs. If there are so many organs available for under $20,000, how can this one be worth $750,000? That’s when the sassy or aggressive appraiser is accused of fraud.


It would be a shame.

For anyone who loves the organ, it is unimaginable that an instrument might be scrapped, but it happens, and it happens often. The principal reason is simply that there are so many instruments on the market and a growing number of reasons why instruments become redundant. Churches close and merge every day, and active churches eschew traditional artistic values in favor of electronic substitutes for pipe organs or forms of worship leadership that do not involve anything resembling an organ. If we take in four or five times as many new listings as we are able to sell, the backlog grows fast. Naturally, a church or other institution that is searching for a vintage organ will choose a good instrument over a mediocre one, so since we already have dozens of modest and uninspiring organs built by Möller, Wicks, or other comparable builders in the middle of the twentieth century, there is no good reason to support adding more to our list. 

In many cases, time is the greatest enemy of an organ. Anyone who has served a church that has acquired a new organ will know that it takes a long time to conceive and execute a plan. A committee might spend a year or two educating itself, researching builders, and comparing proposals. Raising the necessary funds is a huge undertaking that takes lots of time and effort. It is somehow amusing, while at the same time annoying, that a church that has gone through the lengthy process of ordering a new organ starts thinking of removing the old one at the last minute.

When asked how long it might take to sell an organ, I often respond that in this business, a year is like a lightning bolt. If your church is planning for a new instrument, planning renovation or expansion that will eliminate the existing space for the organ, or moving toward closing altogether, the possibility of a future for the organ depends on how much time is available.

Of course, it is possible to dismantle an instrument and place it in storage. However, it is rare that a church or organbuilder would fund such a plan without having an assured future for the organ. At the Organ Clearing House, we are often offered organs for free, assuming that we would bear the cost of dismantling. But dismantling an organ of average size typically costs $15,000 to $20,000. It can cost hundreds of thousands of dollars to dismantle a large instrument, and storage of any organ represents a hefty monthly cost. And remember, it is much easier to buy or sell an organ when it is assembled and playable.

Occasionally, I receive a call from someone wishing to visit our showroom. That is a nice thought. It would be fun to have twenty or thirty organs set up and playable in a big room, but the economics of such a business plan are untenable. 


Maybe it’s not worth it.

There is a finite amount of money spent on organ projects in the United States each year, and it is my point of view that we should do our best to see that it is spent on fine instruments whenever possible. The exception to that rule is the church that owns what might be categorized as an “ordinary organ” that serves well. They should be encouraged to provide for major repairs and timely renovation, taking any opportunity to improve it. Having said that, I have frequently advised churches to scrap a substandard organ in poor condition and start over. As a descendant of a silk-trading family, I know that you cannot make a silk purse out of sow’s ear.


I have spent a lot of time in church buildings that have been closed. It is always a sad sight, and sometimes downright eerie. A few years ago, I visited one in metropolitan New Jersey, that busy area just across the Hudson River from Manhattan. It was a huge campus, the carcass of what was once a huge and vibrant congregation with a 1,200-seat sanctuary featuring gorgeous woodwork, a graceful surrounding balcony, and a relatively new large pipe organ. There were dozens of offices, classrooms, and meeting rooms, a large gymnasium, chapel, and two elegant function halls, one of which had a stage with real fly space for changeable sets.

Interestingly and perhaps irresponsibly, the leadership of the parish had given the parishioners little warning that the place was in dire straits. The building had been closed about four years earlier, but besides the coating of dust over everything, it was as if they had a last worship service, turned off the lights, and closed the doors. The water glass was on the pulpit, orders of worship stacked at the usher’s station, a few forgotten coats hanging in the narthex, choir folders in a heap on the table, unopened mail in the office, even stuff in the refrigerators, long past the status of science experiments. I imagined that there must have been some mighty unhappy people going home from church that last Sunday at noon.

The other end of that spectrum is the church that faces the music and forms a disbursement committee. Arriving at a church to assess or dismantle an organ, I have seen bands of volunteers moving through a building, collecting all the stuff it takes to run a church, from hymnals to choir robes to pianos. They are pushing wheelbarrows through the hallways loaded with bottles of Elmer’s glue, Christmas pageant costumes, copiers, and enough ancient computer equipment to start a museum. And for crying out loud, it is time we finally got rid of that rummage sale sign that has been behind the organ blower since 1963.

Because of the care they have taken planning the sad job of closing the place, there was time to find a new home for the organ, and I have been able to witness how important the organ was to the parish. They bring me family photos showing baptisms, weddings, and funerals with the organ forming a dignified background to those special family events. It is a bittersweet but rewarding experience when the parishioners of a former church have the opportunity to hear their beloved organ playing in its new home, with wind blowing through the same pipes to lead a new congregation.


Tips of the trade

If your church is planning a project that will affect the placement of the organ, put the organ on the top of the list. The leadership might be so excited about the new project that they forget about the organ. First, seek professional advice to assess whether the organ is worthy of reuse. If it is a nondescript modest organ in poor condition, it is a safe bet that it would never be purchased. In that case, it could be offered for parts, or simply discarded. Problem solved.

If the organ has artistic, musical, and historical features that would merit the cost and effort of renovation and relocation, you can increase the possibility that it will be preserved by following a few simple steps. Accomplishing all this ahead of time will help avoid the need to scurry if the schedule gets advanced.

• Make recordings. If an organ must be dismantled before it is sold, good recordings of the instrument can be essential. Record the organ leading hymns in live worship, playing organ literature, and demonstrating various stops. Feature good stops doing what they are intended for­—don’t play three chords on an Oboe or Clarinet, play a lovely melody.

• Gather any files or archives relating to the organ. Many churches keep records of repairs, releathering, tuning, original contracts, etc. These documents can be useful to those who would assess, move, and renovate the organ.

• Measure the organ accurately. If it is situated in a free-standing case, measure height, width, and depth to at least the closest inch, and round up, not down. If it is located in chambers, measure the chambers, windchests, and other large components, and measure the heights of the largest pipes. You can also draw a schematic of the internal layout of the instrument. This is best accomplished by your organ technician, who would understand which measurements are the most important.

• Photograph the organ, inside and out. Include detailed close-up photos of the keyboards and stop controls, pipes on windchests (especially treble pipes, so their condition can be easily seen), mechanical components under windchests, etc.

Put the organ on the market as early as possible. There is no need to wait until you are finished using it. It is common to offer an instrument for sale, stipulating that it will be available “after Easter of 2020.” That would allow time for interested parties to visit and audition the organ. Also, if prospective buyers know that you are running out of time, they’ll be inclined to offer less and less for the organ. If people are auditioning the organ a year before it must be removed, and are leaning toward buying it, they will be motivated by the possibility that another party could come in and outbid them.

In this business, facing the music can mean saving the music. Over the years, I have learned through bitter experience that we cannot save all of them. Not even close. But if we are smart, and if we plan ahead, we have a better chance of saving the good ones.