Casablanca Piano Sells For $3.4 Million
Perhaps the most famous piano in movie history was sold at auction for more than $3 million dollars:
The letters of transit — “signed by General de Gaulle, cannot be rescinded, not even questioned” — were hidden under its unusual hinged lid. It is golden yellow with touches of green and gold, a surprise to people who know it only from its black-and-white adolescence. It has a wad of chewing gum in a place where a wad of chewing gum really should not be.
It is the stuff that dreams are made of.
It is one of the most famous pianos in the world, the piano Ingrid Bergman was close to when she delivered one of Hollywood’s unforgettable lines: “Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’ ” It is the short little upright from Rick’s Café Américain in the movie “Casablanca.”
And it has become the stuff of very expensive dreams. It was sold at auction on Monday for $3.4 million, gum and all. The price included a 12 percent commission.
Of all the auction houses in all the towns in all the world, it had been wheeled into Bonhams on Madison Avenue for a sale of movie memorabilia.
Bonhams did not identify the buyer of the piano, one of two seen in “Casablanca.” The other piano, the one in the Paris flashback scene, sold for $602,500 at Sotheby’s in December 2012. But as some collectors noted at the auction on Monday, that piano was on the screen for only 70 seconds.
Catherine Williamson, the director of entertainment memorabilia at Bonhams, said this piano was unquestionably significant, not just as an object, but because of its central role in an enduring Hollywood classic.
“If there are rules to collecting memorabilia,” she said, “some of the rules include considering how important the film is, how central a prop is to the narrative of the film, how many copies of that prop there are and how much screen time does it have. This film is really important — the characters are so good, the story is so relevant, the tension is so strong that even if you don’t know much about the beginnings of World War II, you can watch this movie and get it — this prop is central to the plot and it also has an awful lot of screen time.”
The piano is crucial, she said, because of the letters of transit. “Fifteen minutes into the movie, he tucks them in there,” she said of Humphrey Bogart. “They’re under there while Sam plays; they’re there for all of the activity that happens in the cafe. The piano is there. It represents the way out for them. That’s what made it so important.”
The letters of transit were also on the block on Monday, and sold for $118,750, including Bonhams’ commission, and the worn-looking doors from Rick’s Café Américain went for $115,000.
The catalog said the “Casablanca” piano, like the one from the flashback scene, was taken from the Warner Brothers prop room for the movie. Both instruments have only 58 keys, 30 fewer than on conventional modern pianos, and the strings and sounding boards are shorter as well. The catalog said the one in the scenes in Rick’s Café Américain was probably made in 1927 and has the initials FNP on the back, for First National Pictures, which merged with Warner Brothers that year.
The catalog also said that the old-fashioned hinged lid was “altered” for “Casablanca” so that Bogart could raise it from the back and hide the letters of transit.
“It doesn’t look much different from how it looked in the movie,” the seller, Dr. Gary Milan, a Los Angeles dentist, said in an interview last week. “There are niches, notches, that are very evident in the movie and in photos of it.” The Bonhams catalog noted a “one-inch notch to center left piano leg (visible on-screen) and three small holes to piano lid (also visible on-screen).”
With similar curatorial precision, the catalog also described the “petrified chewing gum wad stuck to underside of keyboard.”
Sam, who is never given a last name in the movie, was played by Dooley Wilson, a drummer in real life who was actually mimicing the action of playing the piano during the movie. So, technically, this piano was not “played” during the filming of the movie. Nonetheless, that is not what made the piano important to the plot.
And, of course, if we’re going to mention the movie, we can’t leave this out: