Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Silent witness to history and the value of one man's trash

In capable hands, a Hohner's treble reeds may sing and its basses may honk. But in spite of their raucous reputations, accordions which have survived the ravages of time are resigned to bear silent witness to history.

A cruise around eBay or the junk shop reveals that almost all accordions on the used market have suffered some degree of abuse or neglect. This ranges from scratches and dings, to water damage, to character-building battle scars. After Europe's two total wars in the twentieth century, some instruments may show *actual* battle scars. The air war was particularly devastating; whole cities were destroyed as popularly elected leaders found the best ways to terrorize civilians. The following Club III was supposedly recovered by a family from their wrecked house in Stuttgart in 1943, although it seems to have avoided the worst of it.

While the instrument and instructional materials are obviously German, was this accordion actually the victim of an historical Allied bombing raid? As the seller put it in his attempt to sell the box, "well, I believed it!" He got $137 for his efforts, but I'm not sure that what he said is true. The words 'Original Hohner' and 'Made in Germany' are stamped on the underside of the keyboard. The last time I checked, Germany had no law requiring goods of domestic origin to be stamped in English. On the other hand, the keyboard is constructed of two pieces, and an English or American owner may have replaced the underside of a damaged keyboard at some point. Who knows? It stirs the imagination.

Accordions accompanied German soldiers and officers to the front. To this end, Hohner designed instruments that were small and lightweight for soldiers to stow easily in a rucksack. Today, the Preciosa and Liliput are much sought after accordions. Below are two very nice Preciosas.

This officer appears to be playing a similar instrument.

If you are not too distracted by the garish costumery, you can see a Vienna model in the front row of the next photograph. Note the decoratively patterned bellows papers. This photo also supports the assertion made by some historians that the world's most destructive war was fought by children.

Like so many orphans, accordions often came home with American or English soldiers. Some, like Hitler's Hohner Verdi III piano accordion, were looted from abandoned dwellings. Some were rescued by families as they fled the bombings for the safety of the countryside. Some were sold to Allied nations before the war, only to return to Germany in the kit of an Allied soldier. Here is one in GG# with a story along those lines, and after having survived D-Day, it doesn't seem to have survived much of what came after.

Some boxes were sold through North American distributors and never faced a war, but ended up drying in an attic or rusting in a moldy basement. Improper storage and neglect are probably the most common causes of accordion damage. At any rate, slow decline is more common than "bomb damage." Some have survived floods or a leaky shed, like the box shown below. This Hohner still fetched $102 in spite of its obvious water damage:

Water damage is particularly harmful because it can harm an accordion in several ways. Water or excess humidity will rust reeds and cause them to go out of tune. Oxidation will compromise the structural integrity of a steel reed. A rusty reed can even be tuned to pitch, but the stress of air pressure and vibration may cause it to break during play. Humidity can cause the same problem, especially over the long term. Humidity also causes a mold to grow in the box and as a result, a musty stink will issue from the bellows every time the instrument is played. Sometimes, a thorough but careful wash of vinegar on all surfaces inside and out can remove the smell.

Like the "wet" box shown above, why do people buy these derelicts at all? It looks like water all but rusted that thing to the floor of a defunct basement! The answer is that damaged or even destroyed instruments still have value as beaters or junkyard boxes. A rare accordion that is beyond reason to repair may still fetch a hundred dollars or more for spare parts. If you have ever seen someone's yard filled with rusting automobiles, then you get the picture. People also purchase junkers to learn how to tune and repair accordions, as this avoids the possibility of making costly mistakes on a high quality instrument. The moral of the story is that no accordion is too far gone to throw away!


  1. Taking a hike on a weekend day was a popular pastime before the war -- I've always thought that the Lilliput and Preciosa were produced for that reason.
    Do you know the years of production of either model?
    -Andy in VT

  2. According to "The List" Liliputs were produced from 1935 to 1940, and Preciosas from 1935 till 1943.