Western collectibles hot

May the horse be with you

Ever since Buffalo Bill started his famous Wild West Show, people from around the world have been fascinated with the West.

The heritage of the American West has been a popular theme for paintings for more than a century. People have always been willing to spend large amounts of money on works by Remington and Russell, or photographs by Curtis. But what about the objects of the West?

These antiques and collectibles also show the true history of the cowboy and have become more collectible over the last decade. Saddles, bits, spurs, chaps, Hollywood Western memorabilia, native American items, Custer memorabilia and basically anything used by the cowboy on the range, are now highly sought-after items and collectors are paying big dollars to get their hands on anything from the Old West.

The hardest part for a new collector is trying to decide what to collect because there are so many different categories. Collecting Western objects is quite similar to collecting decorative objects. The makers and materials are important when determining the price and, of course, the basic rules apply: collect what you like; condition is important; and the rarer the better.

The saddle is the one item that was probably the most important to the cowboy and can often bring the most money at auction. Early leather-tooled saddles from some of the earliest known makers, including Main and Winchester, G.S. Garcia and Visalia Stock Co., are the most desirable. Collectors look for condition, style, decoration and rarity. Saddles that are adorned with decorative sterling silver bring even more money, especially if the silversmith maker is Edward Bohlin. Bohlin opened a shop in Hollywood in the 1920s and was known as the saddle maker to the stars. His silver-mounted parade saddles are elaborately designed, and feature matching breast collars, “tapadera” (the hoodlike piece of heavy leather around the front of the stirrup) and bridles. Even today you can often see his silver saddles and designs being ridden in the Rose Bowl parade.

Among the most desirable artifacts of the Old West are silver-mounted bits and spurs. The design elements in mixing silver and iron create amazing works of geometric and figural art. These bits and spurs look nothing like the mundane ones you would find in tack shops today. In the 1920s and 1930s, it was common for these bits and spurs to be made in prisons, and often you will find not only a maker’s mark but a prison number stamped on piece as well. Collectors look for style, inlay, design, mounting (double mounted, having both sides is more desirable), spur straps and general condition. G.S. Garcia, Canon City and McChenseys are a few of the sought-after makers.

As always, provenance plays an important role in collecting Western memorabilia. Anything associated with a famous person who had some role on the Western frontier all ways brings strong prices at auction. Some of the most desirable items once belonged to Gen. George Armstrong Custer, William Cody, Sitting Bull, Wild Bill Hickok, Geronimo and Annie Oakley. Prices for cabinet cards of each of these figures have doubled (and in some cases more then tripled) in the last 10 years.

Collectors of icons from the West were out in full force at Wes Cowan’s auction recently. Cowan’s Auctions’ Fall 2005 Historic Americana Sale generated $2.8 million in sales, making it the highest grossing auction in the company’s history. A Whitney revolver attributed to Sitting Bull was the highest-selling lot with a price of $118,000, more than triple its original estimate. (All prices include the 15 percent buyer’s premium.) Other highlights include George Armstrong Custer’s Indian Wars camp chair at $56,350; $43,700 was paid for Bloody Knife’s Indian Scout discharge paper signed by Custer; an unpublished tin-type of Sam Houston brought $44,850; and a Wild Bill Hickok CVD sold for $16,100. (For a complete list of items, go to CowanAuctions.com.)
One of the best places to find Western memorabilia is the “High Noon” annual event. For the last 16 years, Linda Cohn and Joseph Sherwood have hosted an auction and Western memorabilia show in Arizona. High Noon has evolved into the largest and most recognizable Western Americana antiques, fine art and memorabilia show in the world with more than 250 nationally accredited, exhibiting dealers from 23 states. The record-setting 400-lot auction draws nearly 1,000 bidders from across the country.

This year, saddles were the big seller at the sale, with an Edward Bohlin parade saddle hammered down at $105,000 (prices do not include buyer’s premium). Most silver-saddle aficionados consider this saddle to be one of the most aesthetically pure of all Bohlin saddles produced. A Visalia pictorial silver saddle sold for $55,000, and collectors fought over a rare Sioux beaded half-seat saddle, which reached $75,000.

Other items from the West prove that they are worth the investment as well. A pair of G.S. Garcia spurs with a scarce pattern sold for $22,000, reminding collectors that good Garcia spurs always demand a strong price. The market also has continued to see an increase in prices for anything made by Luis B. Ortega, the famous California rawhide braider. A pair of his reins sold for $20,000, an Ortega quirt sold for $14,000, and a hobble made by him brought $7,500.

As always, Hollywood memorabilia continues to soar at auction. Robert Redford’s red jacket from “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid” sold for $4,000, John Wayne’s red gabardine screen-worn shirt went for $7,000, and collectors fought over a Tom Mix suit from 1922 that sold to the highest bidder at $17,000.

If the market continues to grow at the speed and profitability that it has in the last 10 years, then Western memorabilia will soon be one of the most collectibles areas around. Some believe cowboys are a dying breed and we need to preserve their memory and history. Yet, there still some who carry on the traditions of the West by working the ranches, riding in rodeos and wearing and using the gear that someday we will be fighting over at auction.

Elyse Luray is an auctioneer and nationally recognized appraiser and historian living in New York. Send questions or comments to Elyse in care of Antique Trader, 700 E. State St., Iola WI 54990-0001.