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Equine Collectors

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212 – November/December,2015

Antique Tack is Now a Form of Art

by Kristen Spinning

880_1.jpegAll horse people accumulate a lot of trappings related to their passion, but there are some who take buying equine items to another level: the collectors. Whether it’s beautifully tooled bits, antique saddles, braided rawhide, or halters, interest in the history, artistry, craftsmanship, and design of these pieces is on the rise. Additionally, enthusiasts now span a wide range of backgrounds, ages, and locations. The Old West still captures the imagination of people around the globe, and the horse is forever hitched to that popular cultural genre. From corporate offices in New York or Munich to living rooms in Texas, vintage tack and spurs are finding their way into prominent collectors’ displays.

If there are buyers for collectibles, there assuredly will be sellers who specialize in the category. Brian Lebel is the man behind two of the largest and most prestigious Western Americana collecting events in the country: The High Noon Show & Auction, held every January in Mesa, AZ, and the Old West Show & Auction held in Fort Worth, TX, each June. He also consults and appraises for private collectors and major museums. According to Lebel, the market for equine items has fluctuated in recent years, as it does with any type of collectible, but prices have stabilized across most of the segment and higher end items have seen a nice rebound. He says, “I think people are starting to appreciate the rarity and craftsmanship involved in the pieces,” Lebel says. “One thing that has helped us a lot is that the art magazines have recognized it as true art. That put it out there in the mainstream.” He says collectors are studying to learn about the rarity of items, their usage, and the history of the makers. Still, he says, “What captures their attention first is the look. They are attracted by the quality of the workmanship, the engraved silver, or the tooled leather of the saddle.”

Lebel has a true understanding of the items with which he deals. He began his own facination with collecting horse items when he was a working cowboy in Wyoming. He sought out quality and style in those early days, yet he also had a nose for value. “Back then, I was earning all of $350 a month. When I needed to buy a pair of spurs, there was no way I could afford a $3,000 pair. I had to search out the $100 pair.” Soon, he was buying, selling, and trading the accoutrement of his profession, and he was hooked. Over the years, he has seen a shift away from collectors primarily being people who have used or understood the items. Many may own a horse or two, but some are simply horse or Western Americana enthusiasts. “There are a lot of people collecting today who don’t even understand how to put a bit into the horse’s mouth,” he says jokingly. “They just love the workmanship.”

That broader interest has affected prices as well. “It has done a couple good things for the market,” Lebel explains. “The prices on the top 3-5% of the items have gone up, while the prices have either stabilized or gone up a little for items that have typically been bought by working horsemen.” Citing the cyclical nature of the industry, Lebel thinks we will see a rise in those lower-end prices. “There’s currently a good buying opportunity for that type of material.” When high dollar auction pieces capture attention, it’s easy to assume that everything at a show would be out of reach for the average collector. Lebel is eager to dispel that myth. He stresses there are equine collectibles for every budget. “At our shows, we’re still seeing very high quality, working cowboy gear, such as spurs, in the $500-$800 range.”

Spurs have been the mainstay of cowboy and horse collectibles. People often start their horse-related collections with cowboy items and identify most closely with spurs. That trend has remained constant through the ups and downs of the market. Other items have seen renewed interest, according to Lebel. “Horse hair bridles took a dive for a few years, but they’re coming back very, very strong. The same thing with chaps; now they are coming back strong,” he says. While middle of the road saddles are languishing a bit, he counters, “The high end saddles are going through the roof.” Those prices are attributed to scarcity more than other factors. “In the last couple years, we’ve sold some great, plain leather saddles from the early 1870s and 1880s for a huge amount of money because people are seeing the rarity.” Meanwhile, Bohlin saddles have held their own because of their treasured artistry. Lebel says, “People look at them as a piece of art with their silver engraving and hand tooling.” He is thrilled to see people come into the shows with a solid appreciation of the craftsmanship and beauty that’s on display with these vintage saddles, bridles, and bits. “You can have an engraved bit with a gold butterfly on there that’s just spectacular. It’s better than Tiffany work.”

Another strong segment of the equine collectible market is in celebrity tack. Though the Hollywood Cowboy may be riding off into history, there are still collectors from the generation who fondly connect to those iconic heroes. A bridle or saddle that’s associated with one of the silver screen legends can see fierce bidding before the gavel drops. Lebel shares that he just took in a pair of chaps and a bridle that belonged to Buck Jones. He hopes enough people still remember the cowboy star of the 1920s, ‘30s, and ‘40s. “People remember John Wayne, because he lasted so much longer. But it’s the Buck Jones, Hopalong Cassidy, and Tom Mix fans who are going away quickly,” he says.


Start or Grow Your Collection


Despite its growth and popularity, not everybody knows the value of vintage tack and cowboy gear. It’s still possible to find interesting old pieces at general tack sales, farm auctions, yard sales, and even on E-bay. The key is to educate yourself about the types of things you want to collect. Lebel recommends a great way to get started, or to expand your collection, is to go to the shows. In addition to dealers, “We have working cowboys who come and bring items with them. It’s a great place to look at items, learn about them, and talk to people. You might even trade one bit for another one.” The shows attract the full spectrum of collectors and sellers. He says, “You have everyone from the guy selling $5 bits to someone selling $50,000 bits. That’s what makes the shows so much fun.”

You aren’t likely to find much in the way of horse collectibles at a horse show though. Lebel says, that in the past, they have found that having a setup at the Congress, World Show, and various finals aren’t good venues for selling. Though many of the folks attending have the interest and the money to buy collectibles, it’s not their focus while at those events. “They aren’t there to research the difference between a Bohlin buckle and a Clint Orms buckle. The people attending horse shows are concentrating on the horse and buying things they need or use everyday. They don’t need that level of artistry in what they’re using,” he says.

Lebel shares that there are some fabulous items that will be offered in the January 2016 High Noon Auction including celebrity tack, fine artwork, and rare antiques. “I think not only has the quality gone up, but the accessibility to really fine items has gone up. That’s one good thing about a little bit of a turndown in certain items. Now, you can pick something up that you really like and it’s not going to cost a fortune.” Shows like High Noon are intentionally balanced to have something for everyone. Someone who has the means to purchase a $100,000 saddle may be shopping right alongside a working horsemen looking for nice pieces that they’ll be using in the arena the next day.


1032_1Selling Collectibles


Collectibles enter the market from many channels. Often, a family is cleaning out Grandpa’s barn, or items have accumulated over the years with no more room to display. Often, a working cowboy or trainer suddenly realizes that the halter or bit he has used for years might be worth a whole lot more to someone else. Lebel has advice for horse people looking to re-home that vintage tack or cowboy gear. “We always want them to contact us,” he laughs. “We’ll tell you if it’s worth something.” In all seriousness though, he adds that they continually get calls on things they can’t sell, or that may be hard to market, yet he can often point someone to a buyer who might specialize in that type of item. Lebel says,“That’s what is good about the shows. Bring your truckload of stuff and talk to the dealers. Most likely you will find that person who says that’s exactly what he or she was looking for.” He asserts that there is a buyer for every piece out there. “Whether it’s some-one buying a worn out riata to decorate their kid’s cowboy-themed bedroom, or a high-end Luis Ortega riata for a show room, there is a buyer,” he says.


What’s in Your Collection?


You can’t put a price on any collection when stories and memories are braided into each piece. Whether it’s a family heirloom, a piece won at auction, a treasure evoking childhood passions, or a fortuitous discovery, collectibles have value to the collector that isn’t measured in dollars.


Benny Guitron


Benny is a self-proclaimed tackaholic who has collected pieces both for use and for the fun of having them. He enjoys showing items from his collection to friends who come to the ranch. He has many southwestern and Texas pieces, but his focus of late has been a return to his roots: traditional Cali-fornia and Vaquero bridles. “My father had probably one of the largest collections ever,” he says. “That gave me the background.” He also has an impressive number of bits, both from contemporaries who he admires and vintage makers. “I’m fortunate to have bits that Tony Amaral, Harry Rose, Jimmy Williams, Dwight Kennedy, John Hoyt, Jack Kyle, Jim Paul and so forth have given me. I call it my Wall of Fame.” He has an unwavering appreciation for the work-manship of the vintage bits. He marvels at the artistry those craftsmen achieved with the tools of the day, adding, “The old timers had better silver than the silver-smiths of today, so their engraving is impeccable.”

Benny considers the personal legacy of the bit makers of long ago and their customers. “Good horsemen from an area would go to the best bit maker around. They probably stood around the workshop and conversed. Then, there would be that one more tap on the anvil or one more stroke of the file to make it just right. It’s not that it made it perfect. In fact, that’s what’s wrong with so many of our modern day bits – they’re too perfect, too much the same.” In his opinion, bits from years ago had more feel, and the use of sweet iron gave the horses something they liked.

He also has a few spurs that are special, including a pair that Bobby Ingersol gave him, along with some that his dad had made. He always has his eye out for something new to add to his collection. As for that one piece he would love to acquire – it will remain a mystery until he finds it. Otherwise, we might all be looking for it!


Jason Smith


Jason has a collection of bridles, halters, and bits among other equine-related collectibles. He has a few vintage halters that he actually continues to use. Favorite items in the collection include some Bayers bits that had belonged to his wife Julie’s dad and others that he has acquired. He says, “Those pieces are really hard to come by.” He currently has his eye on one Bayers bit that he thinks is pretty cool, and he’s trying to coax the owner to part with it.

He’s had replicas made of some of the more interesting vintage bridles in his collection, so he can use them while the originals stay safely locked away. Smith says, “Those guys back then were true horsemen. I think we need some of the old school stuff in our new.” He believes the materials used to make those bridles years ago were a lot better than what you see today. “The workmanship was also so much better. They were all done by hand and had that personal touch,” Jason says.

Currently, he is on the hunt for a Don Leson saddle, one actually made by Don. Usually, Jason stumbles upon items rather than actively scouring dealers or shows. “I have to find them in the country. I find it hard to find a bargain at the shows,” he says.


Clint Haverty


Clint is an avid collector of a wide range of items in addition to being a hand-tooled leather craftsman in his own right. He has an admiration for both contemporary and vintage braiders, silversmiths, and bit makers. He looks for that special combination of class, beautiful design, and correct function. One theme runs throughout his collection, “Everything I collect has a story.”

He has about a dozen Billy Klapper bits and five sets of spurs. He is so fond of the renowned artisan’s work, he made sure he got his wife and his son a set of Klapper spurs as well. “His stuff is so hard to get. In my mind, Billy Klapper is going to be highly collectible in time because of how hard it is to obtain.” He continues, “I have a lot of his stuff gathered up, and I’m always on the lookout for more.” Clint loves the style and quality, but the Klapper pieces meet one other extremely important criteria. “It has to work for me before I’ll collect it,” he says. His collection also includes Pointer and EG bits and spurs, KR spurs, and Blanchard spurs, and a rack with six sets of spurs that hold very special meaning to him. He says, “They are from people who have died, and their widows or girlfriends have sent me those spurs. I feel very privileged to have them. Every one of them has a story.”

Clint has plenty of collectible pieces that strictly hang on his wall, but he knows they would work for him in the arena if he were so inclined. He has hackamores by acclaimed braider Jay Adcock, and he is quite certain Adcock’s work will increase in value as the availability is so limited. Don Brown is another hackamore maker whose work Clint values highly. He uses some of them down in the barn for everyday training, but he also keeps some in pristine, original condition at home.

He also collects old style riatas, saying, “With all of those, I knew the maker when I was growing up, or my daddy made them. I can remember every one of them as a kid. They were made before I was born, probably.” He keeps those treasures in his house. “All that old-time stuff may not mean much to anybody else, but it means a lot to me,” he concludes.

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