Bill Monroe's mandolin continues to make history

by Keith Lawrence

Owensboro Messenger-Inquirer (MCT)

18 December 2009


OWENSBORO, Ky. — A 7-inch mandolin headstock veneer defaced by Bill Monroe nearly half a century ago sold at auction Dec. 3 for $37,500.

That’s $5,357.15 an inch.

Christie’s auction house in New York City had estimated that the piece would sell for between $5,000 and $7,000.

She wasn’t the buyer, but Gabrielle Gray, executive director of the International Bluegrass Music Museum in Owensboro, Ky., was the last bidder to drop out before the piece of bluegrass history was sold.

“People at Christie’s were shocked at the price,” she said Thursday. “But it’s folklore. It’s one of a kind. It came from the most famous mandolin in the world. It’s at the heart and soul of bluegrass music. It could have sold for $100,000.”

Gray did come away from the auction with a 14 1/2-inch statue that was presented posthumously to Monroe when he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1997.

She got it for $2,500 — below the anticipated price of $3,000 to $4,000.

“It’s being shipped to us,” Gray said. “It’s a very good artifact. I’m sorry they waited until after his death to induct him.”

She doesn’t know yet when the piece — a black human-shaped figure holding a disc above its head — will go on display.

“We’ll possibly wait until the centennial” of Monroe’s birth in September 2011 “and make a big splash then,” Gray said.

The name of the person or company that bought the defaced headstock veneer — which sits atop the mandolin’s neck — is being kept secret, at least so far.

Gray said she’s written Christie’s and asked them to pass a letter on to the buyer, asking for permission to display the veneer at the museum during the Monroe centennial in 2011.

Monroe’s 1923 F-5 Lloyd Loar mandolin, which sold in 2002 for $1.125 million, is now in the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum in Nashville.

Monroe is said to have bought it in a Miami barbershop for $150 around 1943 or 1945.

In 2001, a group of 16 area investors put down $112,500 toward the $1.125 million purchase of the instrument for a planned Ohio County, Ky., museum. But they weren’t able to raise the rest in time.

According to Christie’s, Monroe, an Ohio County native known as “the father of bluegrass music,” sent his mandolin to Gibson Guitar Co. in 1963 for a neck reset, new frets and fingerboard, new tuners, a new bridge and refinishing.

Bluegrass Unlimited recently reported that when Monroe got the mandolin back, only the neck work had been done.

In anger, Monroe is said to have taken his pocketknife and gouged out the pearl-inlay logo that read “The Gibson.”

He left only the “The” on the veneer.

Monroe played the Gibson-less mandolin for 17 years until the company finally persuaded him to let it fix the instrument in 1980.

Bluegrass Unlimited said that Pat Aldworth, a former Gibson employee, kept the damaged headstock veneer after the new one was attached to the mandolin. He decided to put it up for auction this year.

“You could make a movie just about the mandolin and all it’s been through,” Gray said.

The damaged veneer is an icon for Monroe fans, she said.

Gray said the bidding began at just over $3,500 and a lot of people were bidding.

“It was very, very exciting to be in New York City at Rockefeller Center, seeing that many people interested in Bill Monroe,” she said. “Bill would have been so excited to see it.”

Gray said she had backers who had authorized her to spend “up to a certain amount” for the headstock veneer.

“I was the last person to drop out,” she said. “I was well over what I was authorized to spend, but I wanted it for the museum.”

Gray said the museum recently had an auction of its own, selling a Bitterroot F Style mandolin that was donated by Weber Mandolin for $2,050 to Myrna Requier, part of the management team at Podunk Bluegrass Festival in Hartford, Conn.

The money will be used to support both the museum’s Monroe-Style Mandolin Camp and its River of Music Party.

“The purchaser got a good deal,” Gray said. “It would have sold for more than $3,000 in a music store. But people expect to pay less at auctions.”

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