By Steve Evans
If there ever was a golden age of buckle collecting, it was during the 1980s and early 1990s. Most of the interest had to do with “limited edition” belt buckles. These buckles were thought of as instant collectors’ items and good investments.
Eye on Belt Buckle Collecting
Collectors especially liked a buckle with its own individual number. Some models were produced in small quantities. For example, a 1985 Kansas Auctioneers Association buckle is “#60 of 300.” A buckle planned for mass appeal generated a higher minting. This is the case with a 1983 Year of the Bible that is numbered 4752 of 10,000.
Fred Cooley (1987 Flatlander Buckle Club president), who had a collection of more than 500 buckles, said his interest in limited edition buckles tied in with his love for history. He spoke to this in the July 1987 issue of Buckle Buddies Magazine. In it, Cooley pointed out that “some buckles commemorate historical events, such as centennials and anniversaries. Often they contain back-plate inscriptions that can be, for upcoming centuries, acceptable records of today’s events.”
Buckle Buddies Magazine (published 1980-1989) and Basically Buckles Magazine (published 1989-1993) were great resources for buckle collecting. They contained informative articles, advertisements for businesses that sold buckles, and dates for buckle shows all across the U.S.
Era of Belt Buckle Collecting Clubs
During this era there were several buckle collecting clubs. Among those groups is the Nebraska Buckle Club and Flatlander Buckle Club. Also attracting members is NABBC. The Oklahoma Buckle Club, and the Midwest Buckle Collectors also generated attention. These clubs were eager to raise the status of buckle collecting to a mainstream hobby, like stamp collecting. However, things haven’t gone well for either hobby.
As interest in limited editions peaked, the demand caused the introduction of an excessive quantity of different models. Limited editions started out as rare and special. But when the supply of different models seemed to be unlimited it was too much of a good thing. This was especially true for buckle collectors trying to buy one of each model. A bit steep at $15 to $40 per buckle (calculating for inflation, $32 to $86 each in 2017 dollars).
Even though these buckles are 30 or so years old, their values haven’t gone up. For one thing, the recession of 2008 put a dent in the value of many things, including collectibles. Also, “collecting” lost much of its appeal when collectors started being diagnosed by their spouses as “hoarders” and referred to as such (albeit in jest).
Leading to Availablity of 'Limited Editions'
The term “hoarder” became popular in 2009 with the airing of the reality TV series called Hoarders
(2009 to present on A&E), which has been featuring pitiful individuals with a psychotic tendency to save everything they get their hands on, including garbage. This TV show may be why many of today’s young adults refer to themselves as “minimalists,” meaning they don’t want a lot of possessions.
During the buckle collecting heyday of the ’80s and ’90s, collectors took great pride in their collections, and a collection was admired if it included hundreds of buckles. Most of those original purchasers are elderly today, and what were once prized buckles are being passed down to children and grandchildren who often are not interested in collecting.
This may explain why so many limited edition buckles are available for purchase on eBay. Go to eBay.com and see for yourself. Use the search phrase “Limited Edition Belt Buckle” and you will find more than 2,000 for sale. Click on eBay’s “Sold Listings” feature to see what kind of bargains have transpired over the last 30 days. The prices are low. [Note: Unless specified, values shown in this article are what the author paid on eBay, shipping included.]
High Supply and Low Value=Buy Buckles Now
These limited edition buckles are now vintage. The supply is high and the market values low, so it’s time to buy!
Many limited edition buckles are really beautiful, and it’s no stretch to refer to them as works of art. The intricacy of a sculptor’s work in making the 1982 “American Fishermen” buckle is really something. Details such as foliage along the river bank, the boat’s visible registration number (CA-3386-81), and the man wearing his favorite fishing hat are all elements of this adrenaline-filled battle, complete with a fish leaping from the buckle and the fisherman trying to reel him back in.
How about the 1990 “Kansas, Land of Oz” buckle? It’s a solid brass beauty. A treasure trove of scenes from The Wizard of Oz: Scarecrow, Tin Man, Dorothy, the Cowardly Lion and Toto following the yellow brick road; a tornado lifting Dorothy’s farm house over a rainbow; the Wizard, the Wicked Witch of the West, and flying monkeys off in the distant sky. Wow!
Buckle Art Appreciation
The art of a buckle may be “busy” with many things and/or activities shown, but this often works beautifully. The 1990 “Kansas Coliseum” buckle depicts a music concert, soccer game, ice skating, horse show, a circus elephant and a livestock exhibition which were all seen at the Coliseum, plus two Long Horn cattle sculptures (made mostly from auto bumpers) located outside the arena. The Kansas Coliseum (12 miles north of Wichita) was shuttered in 2010 after 32 years of entertainment. Now all that is left are fond memories and this neat buckle!
Many of the best looking limited edition buckles came from the Siskiyou Buckle Company of Williams, Oregon. Siskiyou did a great job designing their buckles, but outsourced the actual manufacturing to Bergamot Fine Art Foundry of Delavan, Wisconsin.
Many companies had the same relationship with Bergamot, and these buckles sometimes have the Bergamot Brass Works logo (a stylized BBW in a circle), but also can be identified by Bergamot’s unique belt attachments (miniature lions, eagle heads, or Bergamot’s more common “flowers with leaves”).
Buckles Offer Miniature Lessons in History
The Ames Tool Company (founded in 1774) is known as the oldest hardware manufacturing company in America. Buckle collectors learned about Ames (and history) through Siskiyou’s series of ten Ames Tools buckles, first in 1981 and a different model each year thereafter through 1991. Each buckle depicts a significant historical event on the front and a written account on the back, much like miniature time capsules for the Ames Company.
Take a look at Ames’ “Mount Rushmore” buckle (7th in the series) and read its inscription. Pretty interesting stuff. This buckle was made of pewter (as were most limited editions) and in 1987 sold new for $20.
One of the kookiest ideas for a buckle was the 1993 “Boise City - Bombed!” buckle. It commemorated the 50th anniversary of the accidental bombing of Boise (rhymes with voice) City, Oklahoma. The actual event took place on July 5, 1943, and involved a B-17 bomber and its crew on a training flight. They were supposed to be on a practice bombing run over a range near Conlen, Texas, but were off course by 30 miles. It was after midnight and the only lights visible were those of the Boise City courthouse square. The plane dropped six 100-pound bombs, each loaded with four pounds of dynamite and 90 pounds of sand. Luckily no one was injured, but the bombs did hit within 93 feet of the courthouse.
Another interesting buckle is the 1988 “39th International Pancake Day” buckle. The buckle’s art
depicts two women finishing a race, at two locations; Liberal, Kansas and Olney, England. The race is held each year at 11:55 a.m. on Shrove Tuesday (the day before Lent) with 25 runners at both sites. The participants run a 415-yard course while wearing an apron and head scarf, and carrying a pancake in a frying pan. The friendly competition has been going on since 1950 and the overall score (as of 2017) is Liberal 37 wins and Olney 29 wins.
The more known about a buckle can enhance its collectibility, and the year of manufacture is one of the things buckle collectors want to know. There is an exceptional dating feature on the back of a 1991 “Desert Storm, Air Force” buckle. It actually shows the exact day it was made, January 16, 1991, the first day of Operation Desert Storm (combat action to drive Iraqi forces from Kuwait). The maker was obviously waiting for combat to begin. Four versions of the buckle were made on that date: Air Force, Army, Marines and Navy.
'Listen' for Limited Editions
The 1989 “Caterpillar Tractors, Machines that Shaped a Decade” buckle has a similar dating feature. It shows the exact day the buckle die was going to be destroyed – December 31, 1989 – which let collectors know that no more buckles of this model were produced after that date.
All of the buckles shown in this article were made in the U.S.A., and they typically measure 3 3/8 inches wide by 2 3/8 inches tall.
Please consider, dear reader, getting yourself a limited edition belt buckle. Go for a model that really “speaks” to you. If one in this article does strike your fancy, then use that model name or brand as search words on eBay. You might just get your own prized belt buckle.