Cowboy Collectibles

Bill Manns, who's profiled in our April print feature ("Playing Cowboys with Authentic Gear", has spent a lifetime collecting western memorabilia, much of which forms the basis for historic Old West books he creates at Zon Publishing.


According to Bill, there still are western-collectible treasures to be found. "Look on eBay or Antiques Roadshow, and you realize how many things are still in people's households, unbelievable numbers of things."

However, not every old thing stuck in the attic is a valuable collectible. Nor is refurbishing a bona fide antique always a great idea. Here, Bill offers some guidelines for the budding western-memorabilia collector to use the next time he or she raids grandma's attic or visits the local second-hand store.

Trip your trigger: "When something trips your trigger, you enjoy it and that excites you. Don't worry about what it's worth, or if it'll be more valuable as time goes on. Do you like it? Does it make you smile? Do you enjoy touching it? Some people are textile persons. I am; I love rubbing things, running my hands over them. I can't pass a saddle without putting my hand on the horn or running it cross the cantle."

The ideal collectible: "No. 1: You'd like to have provenance of some sort. You'd like the item to have a maker's name. You'd also like perfect condition and for the artifact to be pre-1900."

The reality: "You don't often get all that."

Polish or repair: "You don't want items that've been repaired; new stirrup leathers, for example, and cobbled-up, relaced or relined things are all negatives. Instead of polished spurs, look for that nice old patina.

"Don't overdo and try to make an antique saddle like new. Some people think they do good jobs but, instead of springing for real sheepskin lining, they use synthetic, or they don't even attempt to match the saddle color, decoration or leather thickness.

"Use common sense. A glaring repair wasn't done well. You shouldn't see a well-done repair. It's that simple. The more invisible the repair, the better the job, which helps the piece hold its value. Find somebody who actually repairs antique saddles. Many do a great job, just not necessarily the shoe shop on the corner. Do your research, and don't get trigger-happy to fix things."

Vintage leather care: "Don't be afraid to get leather wet or wash it with glycerine soap. Water doesn't hurt leather. It won't make it lighter, but it'll get it clean.

"I tend to use leather preservative with a lanolin base. I figure if it's good for my hands, it's good for the leather. A product that's light in color probably has lanolin in it. It's not that neatsfoot oil is bad for leather, but neatsfoot will turn leather dark, and it's an oil that attracts dirt, which usually takes away from the item's value."

The elbow-grease edge: "What's more important than the product is how you put it on the item. The more elbow grease you use, the more you rub and flex the leather to work in the product, the better the results. If you don't spend time working it into the leather, you won't get many results. That takes elbow grease."

Collectible hats care: "When an old hat's really bent and rumpled, I just stick it in the sink and use the sprayer to hose down the hat. Great hats are made from beaver and rabbit felt, and any animal can get wet. So I wet the hat, shape the crown, and work on the brim, and let it just sit.

"Other than that, I don't clean hats. Most antique hats have dirt or sweat marks, which are desirable and considered a valuable patina. So don't eliminate that stained, sweaty crown; it only adds to the patina.

"Use the teakettle and steam to shape a hat, or get somebody who really works with hats to do it. I used to steam hats a lot, but now I just wet them down and shape them with my hands.

"If a hat brim's floppy with no body, here's the secret: spray starch and an iron. You can't do the crown, but you can flatten a brim, stiffen it and shape it the way you want it. Be careful: If your iron's too hot, you can scorch or burn the felt. This requires a soft touch, and sometimes the starch is sticky, so I use a tea-towel as a press cloth."

Paper collectibles: "A Wild West, circus or rodeo poster, depending on its condition and the type damage it has, can be sent to people who specialize in such things and use a pressed wax to attach the paper to canvas, which should last forever. Although you can frame small items under glass, a lot depends on the paper condition of a large poster or calendar. Many posters originally were throwaways and printed on really thin paper. When a big poster seems especially frail, look up poster-mounting on the Internet to find a repair company that uses pressed wax.

"What you don't do with paper collectibles is more important than what you do. Never use plastic laminate, spray mounts, glues or sticky tapes, although you can use some mounting tapes. Send your Wild West show or rodeo poster to people who deal with those things."

The ultimate guideline: "Primo condition, primo price."

Contact Bill Manns at Box 6459, Santa Fe, NM 87502, or visit www.zonbooks.com, and click on "Contact" at the top of the page.