“Bill Monroe Mandolin Vandalized” was the headline in the country music community. Bill Monroe had seen a lot of troubles in his days, but nothing could have prepared him for this. On a chilly autumn afternoon in November 1985, the “Father of Bluegrass” returned to his farm in Goodlettsville, Tennessee, after having lunch with his wife, Della, at nearby Mason’s Restaurant. When he entered his home, he found his 1923 Gibson F-5 mandolin, built by craftsman Lloyd Loar, smashed into several pieces, a fireplace poker lying nearby. A second mandolin and some photos of Monroe had alsobeen vandalized (a large picture of his brother Charlie were right beside them and not bothered at all), but nothing was stolen. Various theories have been circulating for years as to who may have been the perpetrator, but no arrests have ever been made. Most news accounts stated it was a “spurned lover”, and the rumors attest that there were many.
Miraculously, the mandolin was repaired and stayed at Monroe’s side until his death in September 1996. Monroe’s son, James, put the instrument up for auction in 2001, and a group of Kentucky investors led by Campbell “Doc” Mercer, a longtime fan of bluegrass and local veterinarian, put in the top bid at $1.125 million. The figure represented the highest price ever offered for an American-made instrument.
That wasn’t the only trauma his prized Gibson F5 Master Model mandolin had gone through. About 1951, Monroe unfolded a blade on his pocket knife and began gouging the pearl inlay “Gibson” from the overlay on the headstock of the instrument, which was signed by Lloyd Loar on July 9, 1923. Earlier he had sent the mandolin to the Gibson factory at Kalamazo. Monroe wanted the neck reset, new frets and fingerboard, new tuning pegs, a new bridge and refinishing. Gibson kept the instrument about four months, a short time to wait on a luthier for a hobby musician, but a long wait for a touring pro like Monroe who probably didn’t fritter money on extra mandolins in those days.
After all that, when Monroe once again had the mandolin, he saw only the neck work had been done. So out came the pocket knife, onto the floor in little shavings went “Gibson,” with “The” remaining intact above it. Some reports have stated that he also broke off the headstock scroll in anger, but most likely it was damaged when Monroe fell holding the instrument.
Years later, at a Christie’s auction for Bill Monroe memorabilia, the big item was the damaged headstock overlay from his 1923 Loar F-5. All of the Monroe items sold in the range of the Christie’s estimates, except for the overlay which went for $37,500! They had projected a high side of $7,000, but had seriously underestimated the interest in the classic piece of Monroe-abilia.