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Antiques: Perfectly Tuned

Sheila Gibson Stoodley

You could say that PianoGrands, Chris and Anne Acker’s antique piano restoration business in Montrose, Pa., rose from the ashes. Six years ago, before Chris met Anne, he purchased an antique Friedrich Ehrbar grand piano and was nearly finished restoring it when one night, after returning home from work at the pharmaceutical company that he cofounded, he was watching a television newscast and, as is sometimes the case when viewing such programs, he saw a report of a burning building. But this story was relevant to Chris, because the building in flames was the one in which he stored his piano. “The only thing left was the cast-iron plate and some pieces of charcoal,” he says. “My heart hurt terribly.” Although he lost his piano, Chris realized that he had found his calling, and with the $40,000 insurance settlement that he received, he left his job and opened a restoration shop. Not long after, he met Anne, who specialized in restoring and constructing harpsichords; the couple married in 2003, a year after merging their respective businesses. In addition to buying antique pianos, restoring them, and selling them, the company also produces replicas of antique harpsichords.

The Ackers maintain strict criteria for pianos on which they will work, defining as antique those made before World War I and rejecting 99 of every 100 that they consider. “Straight black pianos I find boring. I tend to like burled walnut veneers,” says Anne, explaining how she and Chris make their selections. “[A piano] has to have the look, the proportions, and the beauty.” Chris, who estimates that they spend about a month every year searching for pianos, adds, “A piano is more complicated than a nice piece of furniture. It must function, and it has to sound wonderful. That’s why it’s hard to find a good piano.”

By playing an antique piano, Anne determines the adjustments required to recapture its original sound, which, she says, tends to be more nuanced than a modern piano’s. Those adjustments can include repairing old components or replacing them with materials that match or approximate what was used at the time. The Ackers might refurbish ivory keyboards using keys salvaged from discarded pianos or obtain metal strings from an English manufacturer that replicates the 19th-century metallurgical processes that were used to produce piano wire. The Ackers complete 12 to 15 instruments in a year, a pace they hope to accelerate now that they have opened a second shop in the historic district of Savannah, Ga.
 
Considering their standards, it is not surprising to learn that the Ackers have little regard for restorers who reclaim the original appearance of an antique piano’s exterior but fill the case with new equipment. “It’s like taking a Renaissance painting and touching it up with acrylics so it looks brighter,” says Chris, punctuating his point with a growl.

Anne had her own pet peeve that involved clients acquiring meticulously restored pianos and then never playing them. “Honestly, it used to drive me crazy,” she says. “Now, as long as they take care of them and give them good homes, I’m OK. I’d rather they did that than put a big Yamaha in the room.”

PianoGrands, 570.278.4159, www.pianogrands.com

Photo by Simon Clay/RM Auctions
Photo by Shooterz.biz/RM Auctions
Photo by Bonhams
Photo by Daniel Simon