How to collect (and even decorate with) vintage sheet music

For more than two centuries, sheet music has been a staple to collectors for diverse reasons. Initially, individuals took interest in sheets for the music score contained therein, however, collecting sheet music has taken on a new meaning through the decades — especially to the particular individual who collects them. Depending on rarity, with a wide range in value, sheet music is easy to collect, having been mass produced for the market, so much so, that sheet music hit its peak during the decade of 1900-1910, when titles “Let Me Call You Sweetheart” and “Down by the Old Mill Stream” sold up to six million copies.

Buffalo-Bill-Sheet-MusicWilliam F. “Buffalo Bill” Cody is depicted on horseback with a rifle on the front cover of this scarce 10-inch by 13-inch sheet music. Published in London by Charles Jefferys, the cover is complete, but seems to lack one interior page of music. Excellent overall display appearance, with just the slightest hint of aging. Partial separation at the bottom along the spine. Undated, but in a very early style; estimated to be circa 1880s. This outstanding piece earned $658 at Heritage Auction Galleries Nov. 17, 2010.

Sheet music titles can be broken down into varying categories from ragtime, jazz, Broadway and film scores, Civil War, military and sports themes, to notable composers like Irving Berlin, to famous film personalities as Eddie Cantor, The Marx Brothers and Bing Crosby, all leading to iconic music sensations like the Beatles to modern artists such as Michael Jackson.

Sheet music covers have even been used to decoupage the walls of small rooms, actively displaying that there is always an interest in collecting this ephemera.
Sandy Marrone, a collector for more than 30 years, is believed to have the largest private collection of sheet music in the world. Here she shares her insight into the realm of collecting sheet music.

Antique Trader: How did you become interested in sheet music?

Sandy Marrone: I just love music and the whole music aspect of it. I have a big old grand piano. For me, it has been very positive and has kind of defined my life and that of my husband, because a lot of what we do has to do with sheet music activities, such as meeting interesting people, a lot with musical backgrounds, being involved in music programs. I like what my collection brings to me more so than I like my collection. I like how it enriches our lives more than I have pride in it as a collection. Some people are so wrapped up in what they collect they don’t take time to get the pleasure out of it. I do get a lot of pleasure from it. Sheet music also spills into other areas of collecting; that means if somebody is looking for music from me to either study, buy or research, they are in it for a different reason. Just like I like to share why I have what I have and do what I do, they like to share why they have what they have, and usually it’s a whole other aspect to sheet music.

AT: What are some of the other aspects?

SM: I guess they call it cross collecting. For example, say they collect everything on Charles Lindbergh, and, by the way, they want every piece of Lindbergh sheet music which could be a couple hundred or more. Their main interest is Lindbergh and all the memorabilia connected with Lindbergh’s life, which there’s a huge amount. So, sheet music becomes just a small part of what they collect.

Josephine Baker sheet musicArtist Louis Gaudin (Zig) caught the spirit of Josephine Baker on this 10 1/2-inch by 13 1/2-inch sheet music (of her most successful song, “J’ai Deux Amours”), rendering Baker being presented a bouquet by her pet Cheetah, “Chiquita.” This unrestored four-page example published by Salabert in 1930 displays signs of use and has clear tape on the border edges. Overall in fine/very fine condition, the piece earned $84 at Heritage Auction Galleries July 31, 2011.

AT: What are some reasons people collect sheet music?

SM: Most the people I know are focused on specific areas of sheet music.
There are hundreds and hundreds of subjects, so some of the most important would be on sports; baseball; black themes that’s not Nat King Cole; transportation — trains, planes, automobiles; technology, such as wireless photography; and military, different wars. I literally collect in a thousand different categories and even have my collection split up in that way.

The next would be important composers like Irving Berlin, Gershwin, Kern, Porter, because there is a lot of value. Then you have the importance of the personality. People think Bing Crosby and Rudy Vallee or people like that are of importance. No! Important stars on sheet music would be Mae West and other blonde bombshells like Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe, Brigitte Bardot, comedy groups like The Marx Brothers, the Three Stooges, Laurel and Hardy, Wheeler and Woolsey; there aren’t as many of them. Judy Garland is collectible, always has been and always will be. Suppose you have a Judy Garland sheet that’s very popular, but it isn’t worth anything, even if it is Judy Garland, because it is not scarce. This is why I have a lot of trouble trying to educate people which sheet music matters. You have all these things coming together that have to mesh to make it have some value.

AT: What makes a sheet valuable?

SM: The importance of the composer, the importance of the star and the importance of the category impacts the value. The importance of it is everything, and rarity has the greatest input on the value, more so than condition — those two things for sure. I always say to people, you take a piece of sheet music, hold it in your hands and ask, who wants this? One example may be that you have a common love song that’s about a babbling brook, or something like that. Who really cares about babbling brooks? I’m not completely sure that there isn’t one on a babbling brook that has some importance, but basically you can’t call somebody and ask if they’re collecting sheet music on babbling brooks. It doesn’t picture anybody important, it wasn’t written by anybody of significance, therefore it should essentially be in a dollar pile no matter what the condition. Now if you are holding in your hands a song about some famous kidnapping that is of historical importance, then there is some interest to that sheet that is going to determine the value.

movie sheet music lotJoan Crawford, Gloria Swanson, and Other Actress-Signed Sheet Music. Group of nine sets of sheet music, signed on the front covers by Crawford, Swanson, Irene Dunne, Madge Bellamy, Joan Bennett, Ruby Keeler, Pola Negri, Alice Faye, and Colleen Moore. In overall Fine condition. $508. Heritage Auction Galleries, July 29, 2011.
Those-Ragtime-Melodies sheet musicHall of Fame pitching great Rube Marquard is presented on the cover of this original 1912 piece of sheet music, 10 1/2 inches by 13 1/4 inches, titled “Those Ragtime Melodies.” It sold for $36 at Heritage Auction Galleries Oct. 24, 2010.

AT: What are your thoughts on sheet music price guides?

SM: The sheet music community is very much against price guides, so I couldn’t in good faith recommend them. There’s a series put out by the late Marion Short that is no longer being produced now, but they were a bit more realistic with great illustrations. These books are a good barometer of scarcity. I don’t know how knowledgeable she was, but she did a beautiful job on those books. There’s a lot of information in them and plenty of beautiful pictures. Again, I definitely don’t advocate a price guide and advise people to avoid them. I always say just take your sheet of music out on the street and ask the first person coming by how much they think it is worth. Whatever they say is just as good as what is in that book (price guide). The completed auction site of eBay can be a good resource for sheet music. They list what has sold and for how much. I arrange the search list by the highest price range first, what sold or was offered for the most amount of money. If I see something has sold for $700, then I know that’s something big. That is another very good barometer for somebody to start to look at.

AT: What are your thoughts on people using sheet music for wallpaper?

SM: I’m all for wallpapering, decoupage or lining a bird cage with it. There is a tremendous amount of music that is worthless, and I don’t go to pieces over that, because I know there’s such a huge quantity out there that nobody is ever going to want. I’ve actually been to shops 10 years later, and they are still trying to peddle the same old sheets. It’s just not going to sell. I think it’s perfectly OK to use for wallpapering, since there’s so much that is worthless, so you might as well take it and enjoy it. I tell people if you got a powder room and you got music, feel free to strip off the covers and put them all over that powder room wall and decoupage it. The problem is that if somebody doesn’t know what they have, they might do that with something that is immensely scarce and valuable. It’s important to try to know the value.

Lon Chaney Laugh Clown LaughThis brightly colored, very fine-minus example of unrestored sheet music from the 1928 dramatic motion picture “Laugh, Clown, Laugh” (Remick Music Corp., 1928, 9 inches by 12 inches) starring Lon Chaney and Loretta Young, directed by Herbert Brenon, earned $31 at Heritage Auction Galleries April 8, 2012.

AT: What is your advice to a novice in building a collection?

SM: Collect something that pertains to your life, and people often do. I would think that would make it more fun. Like, they may play in a brass band, so they’ll collect Sousa, or music about brass bands. There are a lot of people in financial careers from banking and accounting to the tax field, and money is a huge category — from titles on the haves and the have nots, being rich, being poor. My money category is split up in all kinds of odd ways. It’s really whatever someone likes. If they like to garden, how about flower songs? Some of them aren’t going to have too much value, like the flower songs, but it would be fun for somebody to have. Remember, if you want value, they’re going to have to go to status categories, and that would be again be sports, ragtime is always a good category, jazz and blues. Black themes are always going to be desirable because no one is going to write those kind of songs anymore. They’re generally not going to be around for a couple dollars; they are going to be high.

AT: What keeps sheet music collecting popular today?

SM: One problem might be is that I don’t know how popular it is today. We’re all worried because everybody I know is older, and that is going to have impact on the hobby for sure. Today, sheet music is going more into rock ’n roll, which is fine. I get a kick out of the fact that I like the present music, the new covers with Madonna and so forth, I think they are pretty neat. You have to watch the current trends.

Jamie Brotherton is a freelance writer based in Cincinnati. She has written about Ben Chapman, the Creature from the Black Lagoon, Alan Young and the lovable Mister Ed and Deana Martin talking about her famous dad, Dean Martin. She may be reached via email.

 Sheet Music Resources

Sandy Marrone
113 Oakwood Drive
Cinnaminson, NJ 08077

New York Sheet Music Society
P.O. Box 564, NYC 10008
Meets the second Saturday of each month from October through June at Local 802 – Musicians’ Hall, 322 West 48th Street, NYC
Flea market: 12:30-1:45 p.m., info; program: 1:45-3:30 p.m. Non-member guest fee $10. Membership $50 per year/single (nine programs and a monthly newsletter).

The Vincent Motto Music Collection
Diverse compilation of 35,000 sheets of popular American tunes from the last 150 years; open 10 a.m.-3 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays or by special appointment.
Fayetteville Free Library
300 Orchard St.
Fayetteville, NY 13066
315-637-6374 ext. 328,

Sheet Music Magazine
Since 1977 Sheet Music Magazine has been printing the words and music of the Great American Songbook.
P.O. Box 3000
Denville, NJ 07834
or 772-581-1322

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