Most of the sheet music found today was produced from the 1890s onward. The early examples feature favorite songs from popular stage productions. Later, movies and radio introduced popular music to even more American homes. Performers associated with the original versions of those songs were often depicted on the cover of the music, a side benefit for today's collector as a crossover into pop culture memorabilia.
This type of ephemera was in such demand back in its day that many examples sold more than one million copies when they were first issued. Collecting Paper by Gene Utz (Collector Books—now out of print, available through used booksellers) 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” sold the astounding sums of five to six million copies each. 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 for use in homespun entertainment as well, especially during the holidays.
Sheet Music Popularity
The faces of early 20th century personalities such as Al Jolson, Fannie Brice, and Eddie Cantor graced many early sheet music issues. Later, stars of the 1940s such as Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour thrilled fans on colorfully illustrated 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. The more recognizable stars and songs most often hold the most value with a few exceptions for sheer rarity or attractive cover illustrations.
Competition is not extremely fierce for this ephemera since there are plenty of song titles to go around, but there are some cases of crossover collecting when it comes to sheet music. For instance, pieces with a military theme often interest collectors of militaria, also known as military collectibles. Broadway musical enthusiasts will seek out numerous titles from Rodgers and Hammerstein or Irving Berlin as well. Collectors of sports memorabilia look for music with illustrations featuring baseball heroes of yesteryear. As an example, "The Climber's Rag" featuring cameo illustrations of the 1911 St. Louis Cardinals baseball team can sell in for more than $2,000 in the right market.
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 as noted above, even though they’re made of paper and can be somewhat fragile as they age, only a few sheet music examples are truly rare. Most common examples sell in the $3 to $5 range today in antique malls and sometimes for even less via internet auctions. For instance, it's not uncommon to find lots of 25 to 30 pieces of sheet music selling online for $10 or less for the entire lot. Most common pieces have to be in excellent condition to bring even that much.
However, many pieces of Scott Joplin’s work do bring high prices, so it's wise to thoroughly research pieces you may own before offering them for sale or tossing them in the donation bin. For instance, Joplin's "The Chrysanthemum" could bring over $1,000, and many of his other sheet music works sell for $500 or more. Pieces of music falling into the Black Americana category are also very highly valued when in very good to excellent condition. A copy of "The Hoogie Boogie Dance" by Mose Gumble dating to 1901 sold on eBay.com for $1,400 in 2016. When autographed by notable celebrities, common pieces of sheet music can also jump exponentially in value since autograph collectors are in the running for those as well.
And while they aren't found often, sheet music examples dating to the early 1800s can also be valuable. These are usually simple sheets of handwritten music recorded on paper before the advent of mass printing. They are void of illustration and very plain looking, but again, it's wise to research what you have before disposing of one of these rare items. You may have a treasure, even though it doesn't look like much.