It's Never Too Late to Look

(A recent discovery in Belgium)

The "Piano with Organ Function and Tapes"

Many people like to think that all the good coin-in-the-slot pianos and orchestrions have been found, and that the only trade in such instruments is now limited to that between established collectors. This kind of defeatist attitude prevents many people from going to the effort of honestly looking for still hidden treasures that could be right in front of their nose. But this story shows that thinking there is nothing worthwhile left to find is not necessarily the way it is. Forgotten and valuable mechanical music machines can still be discovered in some unlikely places by an alert person who pays attention and actively pursues some oftentimes very obscure looking clues.

Catalogue Illustration of a Weber Unika, circa 1920. A recent example of an unexpected find is told by my friend Björn Isebaert, of Ghent, Belgium. His friend, Kurt De Jonghe, of Meulebeke (West Flanders), Belgium, also a mechanical music enthusiast, regularly buys a magazine filled with all kinds of advertisements, hoping to find more mechanical music instruments to add to his collection. In April of 2002 Kurt noticed an advertisement that read "For sale: piano with organ function and tapes." At first the ad did not stir more than a flicker of interest, but eventually he called the owner and asked if it was still for sale.

The Weber Unika newly arrived in the home of Kurt De Jonghe (in Meulebeke, Belgium)."Sure," the owner replied. Kurt asked: "What mark is it?" "It's a Weber Unika; but you have to come soon or we'll bring it to the garbage park." Needless to say, Kurt wasted no time getting to the man's house; and when he entered he nearly fainted. Sitting before him was an almost mint condition Weber Unika. The inlaid brass letters on the case façade shined so brightly that the instrument seemed to be almost new, as though recently shipped from the Weber factory. Unfortunately, however, the original top gallery (a simple decorative top facade) and electric lanterns were missing, and upon closer examination (through the thick layers of dust) a crack at the right side of the case was observed, but it was repairable. The inside mechanisms seemed to be in immaculate condition, too, the player mechanism, pipework, the piano and all else looked to be complete and in pristine unrestored condition. Overall the Unika discovery was the fulfillment of a collector’s dream, when actually stumbling upon a pristine instrument, even though it is not currently in playing condition.

Instrumentation of the Weber Unika consists of a piano with expression, a mandolin attachment and a set of 28 beautifully toned wooden violin pipes. The work number stamped on the roll mechanism’s bottom board for this instrument is 2547, suggesting this machine was manufactured in 1925, and was the 47th instrument made by Weber that same year. In contrast, the serial number on the Feurich piano is 43039, which, according to Pierce's Piano Atlas, puts the manufacturing date at 1927-1928. But the piano atlas is known to have dating errors, and it is the opinion of a number of seasoned collectors and restorers that a circa 1925 manufacturing date is more than likely the correct one. The Unika was originally imported into Belgium by Gérard & Cie, an important importer of mechanical music instruments located in Brussels.

The late style box pump for the Weber Unika, which produces both vacuum and wind-pressure.The upper portion of the Unika, with the music roll mechanism in the center.All of the original paper instruction placards, such as the electrical schematic, feeder pump instructions, et cetera, were still glued inside the little orchestrion and in excellent condition. Also with the Unika were about 20 music rolls, most of them original Weber arrangements; others being of Belgian origin (possibly made by Eugene De Roy). And, not withstanding the initial shock of finding such a beautiful, unrestored Weber in such unlikely surroundings, the biggest surprise of all was the price: the owner was only asking 500€ (about U.S. $450.00) for it; and after some negotiations Kurt was able to buy it for only 400€.

The instrument had belonged to the father of the present owner, a man named Roger, who resided in Ename, near Oudenaarde (East Flanders), about 30 kilometers from Ghent. Roger's father had acquired the instrument in exchange as payment for a debt, whereupon they transported the heavy Unika to his home on a cart. It is presumed that the crack in the case may have been caused during the hauling of the instrument. The father had five sons, and after his death one of the sons, Roger, moved into and lived in his father’s house, and thereafter became the new official owner of the Weber Unika. The presence of the Unika apparently never aroused much interest in Roger, its new owner, because the instrument had been standing in the house unused, unappreciated, and the case unopened for over 20-years. That the instrument remained unused could be partially due to the fact that Roger could never find the keys to the cabinet, which had fallen between the swell shutters in the top of the machine. But whatever the case, the loss of the keys may have been a blessing in disguise, since no one had opened the case and damaged any of the internal player mechanisms or the fragile violin pipes.

With the help of several acquaintances, Kurt De Jonghe successfully moved the Weber Unika to his home without incident, later remarking that it was, indeed, quite a heavy instrument. Once safely in his home, Kurt could more closely and leisurely inspect the Unika, which, as before, appeared to be in nearly mint condition. To get it playing fairly well only the bellows cloth on the feeder pump, an electromagnet and the electric motor had to be replaced (the motor had been previously replaced; there was an 380 VAC motor in it, which needed to be changed to a 220 VAC motor). As a final touch, the Unika’s piano was tuned to 435Hz, instead of the 440Hz pitch, because it has not been tuned for a long, long time, and delaying the final tuning to A440 allowed time for the piano to gradually equalize itself and adjust to the much increased string tension.

Other instruments in Kurt De Jonghe’s collection include:

Credits:

Björn Isebaert, Kurt De Jonghe, edited and compiled by Terry Hathaway.

Photographs:

Björn Isebaert.