Quick Tips for Collecting Vintage Sheet Music:
- Sheet music was sold in mass quantities when new making it plentiful today.
- Vintage sheet music is primarily purchased based on the cover illustration.
- Recognizable stars, sports icons, historical events and pretty women are the most popular illustrations.
- Most old sheet music sells for $5 or less apiece these days.
- Only a few examples are considered truly rare, but a number of crossover titles still sell for high prices (see price points below).
- Autographed sheet music can jump exponentially in value, depending how well-known and popular the signer happens to be.
Early Sheet Music
Sheet music produced from the 1890s onward featured favorite songs from the stage. Later, movies and radio spread popular music even further into American homes. Performers associated with the original musical presentations were often depicted on the cover of the music, a side benefit for today's collector.
This type of ephemera was so popular, many examples sold more than one million copies when first issued. Collecting Paper by Gene Utz reports that A Bird in a Gilded Cage sold two million copies in 1900. In 1910, familiar tunes Let Me Call You Sweetheart and Down By the Old Mill Stream each sold five to six million copies. Any professional musician of the day would have stacks of colorful sheet music stashed in piano benches and tucked away in boxes. Amateur musicians patronized merchants selling sheet music as well since homes were often filled with homespun entertainment, especially during the holidays.
Sheet Music Popularity
The faces of early 20th century personalities such Al Jolson, Fannie Brice and Eddie Cantor graced many early issues. Later, stars of the '40s like Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour thrilled fans on sheet music covers. Even sheet music from The Beatles, The Beach Boys and other more recent issues featuring pop culture icons like Michael Jackson are collected today. More recognizable stars and songs hold the most value, with a few exceptions for sheer rarity.
Competition is not extremely fierce since there are plenty of song titles go to around, but there are some cases of crossover collecting. For instance, sheet music with a military theme often interests collectors of militaria. Broadway musical enthusiasts will seek out numerous titles from Rodgers and Hammerstein or Irving Berlin as well. And collectors of sports memorabilia seek music with illustrations featuring baseball heroes of yesteryear.
Other shoppers are attracted to the numerous covers featuring colorful drawings of beautiful women. Framed and hung on a wall, these can make a lovely accent in the home or office most anyone can appreciate.
Valuing Sheet Music
Because of the sheer volume produced and distributed, even though they’re made of paper and can be somewhat fragile, only a few sheet music examples are truly rare. Most common examples sell in the $3-5 range today in antique malls and for even less in online auctions. A recent survey of eBay yielded 30 pages of sheet music that sold for $2 or less. Most common pieces have to be in excellent condition to bring even that much.
However, a rare piece like Scott Joplin’s Breeze from Alabama from 1902, lists in Schroeder’s Antiques Price Guide for $50 and select pieces bring even higher prices. When autographed, common pieces of sheet music can jump exponentially in value.
Sheet Music Price Points:
- Loveless Blues, 1950, Bill Hayley (dressed as cowboy) - $299.99
- Ragtime Oriole, 1911, James Scott - $149.99
- Poor Cinderella, 1934, Betty Boop illustration - $125
- Theme from "Morituri", 1965, Marlon Brando/Yul Brynner illustration - $119
- Love Me or Leave Me, 1950, Doris Day/James Cagney autographs - $100.99
- My California Queen, 1939, from the Golden Gate International Exposition - $100.89
- Take Me Out to the Ball Game, 1908, Sam Williams illustration - $89.99
- Good Hearted Woman, 1972, Waylon Jennings/Willie Nelson autographs - $75
(eBay prices realized - 11/11)