No, Not The Big White One
Purchased by John Lennon in December 1970 for £1,000 from Steinway & Sons in London, and delivered to his Ascot Sound Studio at Tittenhurst Park in Sunningdale, the Hamburg-built chestnut Model Z upright served as both a personal and studio instrument while recording the musician’s first solo albums.
It was on this rather unremarkable piano that he composed the unforgettable anthem of peace, “Imagine”—one of his most widely identifiable songs.
It is an instrument often eclipsed by the iconic white piano seen in one of the fantasy film sequences of Imagine: John Lennon. But 16mm color film from the early sessions of working on the Imagine album—footage originally intended for the Working Class Hero documentary—reveals the piano getting significant use.
To add to its workaday charm, the piano retains cigarette burns on it from where John Lennon left them smoldering.
A Not-So-Anonymous Bidder
A private British collector, who purchased the piano back in 1992, had loaned it to the Beatles Story Museum in Liverpool, England, ten months prior to selling it off at The Hard Rock Café Beatles memorabilia auction in London, an event organized by Mick Fleetwood (former drummer of Fleetwood Mac) and auctioneer Ted Owen in 2000.
Among the famous musicians who bid for it were Robbie Williams and brothers Liam and Noel Gallagher from Oasis. But it was in the end a not-so-anonymous telephone bidder who became the lucky winner, later discovered to be George Michael (formally of the band Wham!), who said he wanted the piano and its famous pedigree to stay in the UK.
When the gavel struck, the £1,450,000 final bid became Guinness World Records’ highest price achieved for a piano to date.
Michael remarked on the condition of the piano:
As a Beatle fanatic, Michael had hoped to record with the iconic piano. During the production of his final studio album (released in 2004), he said he did compose and play the instrument on the title song, “Patience.” In the lyric booklet for the album, George can be seen playing the piano in his studio. He was also thought to have composed the tribute song, “John and Elvis Are Dead,” while at the instrument, though no piano can be heard on the recording.
In 2001, Michael kept his vow and donated the piano back to the Liverpool museum, including its original bill of sale to Lennon, stating: “Not the type of thing that should be in storage somewhere or being protected, it should be seen by people.” 6
The Imagine Piano Peace Project Tour
Finding inspiration in 2007, Michael (with his partner Kenny Goss) envisioned The Imagine Piano Peace Project, a yearlong symbolic tour to promote peace by transporting the famous piano across the United States to visit significant locations where past violent tragedies occurred.
With little fanfare, the rather plain brown piano found itself gently unloaded and planted, as though found in situ, in front of significant landmarks in history.
Among its busy tour stops were Ford’s Theatre in Washington (the site of President Lincoln’s assassination), the Texas State Penitentiary at Huntsville (on the day of the execution of a death row prisoner), Dealey Plaza in Dallas, Texas (seated on the grassy knoll on the anniversary of John F Kennedy’s assassination), the Lorraine motel in Memphis, Tennessee (on the 39th anniversary of the assassination of civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.), Waco, Texas (at the Branch Davidian compound), Oklahoma City (at a ceremony for the federal building bombing), the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans (at the site of Hurricane Katrina’s devastation), and ‘Ground Zero’ at the World Trade Center.
Since the time of its opening in 2010, the Model Z remained on display in the Artist Gallery at the Musical Instrument Museum in Phoenix, AZ, until more recently (in May of 2019) when it arrived in Dallas at the Goss-Michael Foundation as part of the art exhibit, “Marc Quinn: History & Chaos,” before finally returning home to London.
The piano is currently valued between $8,000,000 and $12,000,000.