An Old Mandolin In a Rectangular Case
By Bill Graham - Special for the Mandolin Cafe
April 3, 2008 - 7:00 am
Bill Graham is a freelance outdoor writer, photographer, bluegrass musician and singer-songwriter.
We all dream about it, and sometimes it does happen.
The telephone rang at the Denver Folklore Center one quiet Monday afternoon last October, and staffer Nick Amodeo answered.
"The lady said she wanted to talk to somebody about a mandolin," Amodeo said. "I said, I can, I'm a player."
She was worried about an instrument shipped to her by a family member, considering that it came from humid Chicago and was now in arid Colorado.
"I have this old mandolin," she said, "and it's been in the family for years."
Amodeo advised her to keep it humidified until it adjusted to Denver air.
"We get calls all the time about old mandolins," he said. "It's usually no big deal, an old bowlback or something."
The lady asked if anyone could help identify what kind it was and what it might be worth. Amodeo said he'd try.
"Well it's a Gibson," she said.
"That's a good start," he replied.
But still no big deal, as they get calls all the time about old Gibson A model mandolins or newer F models.
Owner Harry Tuft and friends have bought and sold instruments and promoted acoustic music at the Denver Folklore Center since 1962. So when folks in the West need an instrument checked out, they often get the call.
"I asked her if the mandolin had a little curly Q thing on it," Amodeo said. "She said it did, and I said that's good."
There was a label inside, she said, and it said either F6 or F5. She read the serial number over the telephone and Amodeo checked a reference book, which said it was made in 1924.
"You could have something really big," he told her. "You better bring it in, it sounds very interesting."
The lady replied that she would visit that very day, after her and her husband had their afternoon nap.
Amodeo alerted Tuft.
Sure enough, that afternoon, the lady and her husband walked in with a black case.
"We knew when we saw the rectangular case that it was pretty much going to be the real thing," Tuft said.
The case went on the counter. He opened it, and gazed down upon an F5 mandolin.
Earlier that day, the lady had peered into the bass side through the f hole and noticed the model and serial number. But she failed to look in the treble f hole.
Tuft did, and he spied a paper label saying: "The top, back, tone-bars and air chamber of this instrument were fitted, tuned and the assembled instrument tried and approved Dec. 1, 1924 — Lloyd Loar, acoustic engineer."
The woman had received the mandolin from family members because she had been the musical child in the family. She remembers first seeing the mandolin when she was about 10, in the mid-1930s. She was taking piano lessons at the time in the Greek family's Chicago row house apartment. Her father would play along with her on the mandolin. And he would bring it out to play at family gatherings.
They do not know if he bought it new or used.
"Do you know what this is worth?" Tuft asked her.
She replied that her initial thinking was about $5,000. But after talking to her brother in Chicago, she now believed it was worth at least $17,000 or $18,000.
Tuft asked her to wait a few minutes while he checked his vintage instrument guides, then he returned.
"You may want to sit down," he told them, "and I hope you don't have any heart problems. We're about to have an Antiques Roadshow moment. This instrument is worth at least $150,000 to $175,000."
Then he provided an appraisal of $180,000 to be on the safe side.
The couple was totally and thoroughly shocked.
She asked Amodeo to play it, to hear again what such an instrument sounded like.
But he noticed some tuner screws were missing, as were a few strings, and the remaining ones were dusty and rusty. The instrument needed to be cleaned and fixed up a bit, and he didn't want to harm it.
His heart was thumping though.
"I really, thoroughly looked it over," Amodeo said. "The thought goes through your mind, you're holding a Ferrari in your hands."
He's played a few Loars, but having one unknown to mandolin experts walk in off the street is a special day.
Tuft in all his years of instrument dealing has only found and sold one, and that was in the early 1960s.
"Since then, we've had all kinds of vintage stuff like herringbone D-28s (guitars)," he said, "but this is the only Loar."
Tuft could have told the woman the mandolin was indeed worth $18,000, maybe more, and that he'd be willing to give her a standing offer of $20,000 if she ever decided to sell.
But he was honest.
"I've just always been that way," Tuft said. "People bring things in all the time and I could do things different to make more money. But it's just been my personal policy for the shop. I sleep pretty well at night."
The woman initially had no intention to sell the Loar. She simply wanted to keep it for awhile and then pass her father's old mandolin on to her family.
But after awhile, the woman told Tuft that the instrument's high value began to feel like a weight, something too valuable to keep in the house. She decided to sell.
So Tuft contacted his old friend Stan Werbin at Elderly Instruments in Lansing, Mich., to tap his expertise on Loars and the current market for them. They currently have a joint sales listing for Loar No. 79756 with the price set at $225,000.
Dan Beimborn of the Mandolin Archive says that this instrument was undocumented by our resident Cafe Loar experts until it was placed up for sale.
The mandolin was cleaned up and fixed up for play, and it sounds great, Tuft said.
Those of us who have never owned a Loar and never will at those prices can only daydream. The mandolin is locked safely away and IS NOT at the Denver Folklore shop. You do have to make an appointment there if you have serious buying intentions and want to play it.
Tuft said he must take great care with someone else's Loar and he doesn't have time to run it back and forth to appointments for those who simply want the thrill of playing one. Although as a musician, he certainly understands the desire.
But if you want to screen shop, look at these links:
- Cafe Message Board discussion
Yes, dream on everyone.
But never be hopeless, one might walk through your door someday.
"You never expect this to really happen with a Loar," Amodeo said. "But it's amazing, it actually did happen."