Mantiques Turn Classic Collectibles Into a Cultural Craze
An insider's look at the 'mantiques' phenomenon and why we collect antiques.
Posted May 08, 2014
We all have stories of knowing that kid from school who went on to have an interesting career. For me that’s my grade school classmate Eric Bradley. He is the author of the brand new book Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff and a public relations associate at Heritage Auctions. Eric is also the editor of the annual Antique Trader Antiques & Collectibles Price Guide and an award-winning investigative journalist. Always fascinated by people who forge non-traditional career paths, I was eager to connect with my old friend and find out how he created a career in writing and antiques…or should I say, “mantiques"?
Eric, in your book you mention 15 categories of "mantiques" and you profile men across the country who collect them. Who are these guys and what’s this all about?
I tracked the use of the word "mantique" to a dead trademark from the early 1970s relating to a men’s clothing line. Around this time a shop called Mantiques opened in New York and, ironically, it was run by two women who sold gentlemen’s luxury accessories. The term was adopted and used by a few shops and when HISTORY launched the reality series American Pickers, it was used to describe a lot of the vintage items featured on the show. During the last 10 years or so, dozens of mantique-branded stores have popped up across the country. Each one is different but they are all considered a guy’s hideaway like the Elks Club or Odd Fellows lodges used to be for our dad’s generation. The shops are filled with weird and oddball items. Some shops even hold special events like vintage video game nights or offer shoppers free beer. At auction, we’re seeing really great ‘guy-centric’ collections come to market. The amazing Malcom S. Forbes collection in 2011 included a large fragment of aluminum strut from the Hindenburg disaster that sold for $14,340. That’s the type of object that exemplifies a ‘mantique’ to me. That strut was not made to be a collectible but, to the right man, it is.
So what makes an antique a mantique?
Collectors use it to describe old or vintage items that mainly appeal to men: blow torches converted into lamps, toy soldiers, sexy calendars, and vintage fedora hats. The term also does an excellent job at rebranding traditional antiques. Collectors and sellers see these odd or unusual items in new light and it gets people thinking about objects that were once ignored. It’s a brilliant branding and it’s happening all across America now.
One of the categories you write about is movie memorabilia. Help me understand why a fairly modern 1994 movie poster from Shawshank Redemption valued at $600 is worth nearly as much as a 1950 baseball movie poster featuring Jackie Robinson? Had I known more about this stuff in high school, I wouldn't have used my movie posters to line my cockatiel’s cage.
That’s a great question and a perfect example of how changing demographics affects the value of collectibles. Robinson’s legacy is still felt today—despite the racism that still exists in professional sports—but the generation who might be really intrigued by his memorabilia is older now. Shawshank Redemption celebrates its 20th anniversary this year and those who love the movie are just now coming into a time in their lives where they have the disposable income to collect things popular during their childhood or adolescence.
Products are so mass produced these days, is there anything we can be collecting now that could end up being the mantiques of the future?
I think craft brewery signs will be big one day. There’s been a revolution in the taste for craft beer and the big brewers are losing market share every day. There’s diversity and scarcity among these small craft beer makers nationwide and some of their marketing slogans and ads are much more creative than their big box competitors. Some call me crazy, but the internet defined the 1990s and obsolete tech from those revolutionary days will be hot one day. In a century, collectors will look back at the first 25 years of the internet as a Wild West-type era that started businesses and changed how we communicate. I’m not saying it’s time to shift your 401K into vintage AOL Online discs, but I can totally see early web and Y2K memorabilia being collectible. I think collectors will be assembling shadow boxes to display how storage mediums have changed, from 8-inch floppy disks all the way down to microSDHC chips. USB Flash drives could be very collectible, considering their variety and promotional opportunities. Rarity plays such a big role in values that although it’s likely smartphones will be one day collectible, I'm not sure if they will be terribly valuable in the future because so many were made. But that means technologies that failed will be more valuable on the secondary market than those that were successful.
Describe antiquing/mantiquing as a hobby vs. a career. Are there viable career options for someone who loves picking and collecting?
This hobby is extremely lucrative and a very viable career option. It’s surprising, but a lot of people who sell collectibles are not collectors themselves. They see vintage items as inventory, but they know good design, they know their history, and they watch trends to see what’s most appealing to collectors and interior designers. Some of the people I spoke to for “Mantiques” were affected by the economic crash of 2008 and reselling vintage items and mantiques was their only means of subsistence. It worked for them so well they continued as a business and eventually opened stores. It can be a fickle business, but if you bring a certain common sense, good taste, and humor to the job then you can make good money, help people find cool things, and make lifelong clients.
[see below for possible career options]
You mentioned the popular show American Pickers and of course there’s the classic, Antiques Roadshow. I think these series give collectors a lot of hope that their stuff is worth big bucks. Can you give us the real scoop? Are those appraisals fairly accurate or a bit too generous?
By and large, the appraisals are solid and are founded on plenty of experience and evidence. The price someone is willing to pay for an item is based on a variety of factors—especially when you’re talking about the secondary market. An item appraised for $5,000 may be based on previous prices a similar object sold for in the past. But that’s just a snapshot in time. In the auction business we like to say, “Two people make an auction.” If you don’t have at least two people competing against each other for a single object the price doesn’t rise very much. Sometimes a piece appraised for $5,000 may sell for $3,000 or it may sell for $8,000. That’s just the way things go.
Do you watch those shows and, if so, do you blow your cork every time someone admits they've been using their ancient Chinese jade dish as an ashtray?
Oh, I’m an Antiques Roadshow fanatic. It’s gratifying to see this and so many shows devoted to collectibles remain popular with viewers. I’m always amazed at those stories. I recently spoke with a man who as a child spent hours looking at a map from his great grandfather’s estate. He would unfold it on the basement floor and recently spread it out on his dining table following a Thanksgiving meal, mere inches from a plate of butter and wine glasses. It turns out the map was an early printing of the first official U.S. map of Texas and it sold at auction for $150,000. Treasures are destroyed every day and that makes the survivors that much more valuable.
What do you think is the psychological appeal and cultural importance of collecting antiques? Does it trigger some primal instinct that is futile to resist?
Collecting is primordial; it’s who we are. The origin of modern museums, our main cultural institutions, has been traced back to cabinets of curiosities assembled during the Renaissance. Overseen mainly by men of some means, the cabinet was an assemblage of items that helped them understand the natural world through rare and unusual things. At one time, a collection of seashells may be assembled in such a way so as to show how a form changes over time. The same approach is seen in a collection of axes from Colonial America. Each example is unique in its specialized purpose. Subtle variations are highly prized and valuable. This is seen in all the world’s collections, from coins, to video games to vintage surfboards. There’s also a strong appeal in owning something everyone else wants. Maybe it’s a symptom of Freud’s "id,” the part that pushes us to wrestle something scarce and valuable away from someone else. So in one sense, collecting is a scholarly pursuit that can share information about the world we live in at the same time serving as a deeply private passion that feeds our individuality or our attempt to secure immortality.
Okay, you heard it here gentlemen, collecting is a scholarly pursuit! So do you have any words of wisdom for the men out there who are being pressured by their spouses to dump the junk so the Buick can go back in the garage?
I hear that a lot but it’s not such a bad thing that guys let go of their toys. In the introduction I explain why every collector should also be a seller. Like any pursuit it’s easy to overindulge and very quickly find yourself with a home full of items that aren’t conducive to your lifestyle or mental health. Selling items that no longer make you happy or fit your goals or lifestyle is a smart way to move from quantity to quality. I’ve also heard horror stories when mantiques collectors get bit by ‘the bug’ and don’t keep their collections outside the family finances. It can have tragic results for mortgages, credit scores, and even relationships. Selling items to fund a hobby budget is the easiest way to invest in your collection and keep it separate from your finances.
Mantiquing may be perfect for the man who has a mancave (and very patient spouse), but what about those of us in the city, like me, who want to get in on the action and don't have much space?
For those short on space, I urge quality over quantity. It’s better to have one excellent example rather than 10 mediocre examples. Advertising signs are a smart purchase. They are graphically beautiful and hang flat on a wall. A small, hanging curio cabinet or shelves are great tools to keep a collection together and up off the floor, but avoid putting it in a bathroom where the humidity could damage paper items or paint. The impact a small collection of unusual things can be especially valuable and eye-catching. Mineral specimens are a great example. Mantiques collectors think outside the box and I’ve seen framed maps, and even giant tools hung on a wall create really fantastic displays.
It seems like everyone knows someone who knows someone who found an underpriced treasure at a thrift store or yard sale. Have you ever stumbled upon a valuable object like that and is it still possible to find them now that everyone seems to be keeping an eye out for them?
Great things are always being found. In my role at Heritage Auctions, I get to talk to people who have found vintage movie posters in a garage attic or found amazing things at flea markets for pennies on the dollar. Personally, one of the more memorable things I’ve found is a rare sun ray globe made in the early 1950s by the George Cram Co. It features a cast iron indicator showing the direction of the sun’s rays on the planet. I found it at a college surplus sale for $5 and it’s often sold for $700 to $1,000. It takes time and experience to train your eye to identify old things. Remember that movie scene when Indiana Jones selects the true Holy Grail from a shelf full of jewel-encrusted goblets? It’s like that. Flea markets are ideal spots to find unusual things but it’s also important to learn what the absolute best in the hobby looks like and what it’s worth. An understanding of the materials used to make things at certain periods of time is extremely helpful. If you’re looking for unusual things, home demolition or salvage companies always seem to locate collectibles in the walls of old homes or businesses. Sometimes old signs were used for building materials. A lot of things were stored in walls to keep them “safe” but they were ultimately forgotten.
Your book includes a section on technology gadgets and shows a photo of an Apple II computer that is valued at $7,000. Isn't that the same computer you and I learned to type on in Mrs. Hebert's 6th grade class? I used to see piles of old computers at the Salvation Army and they couldn't give them away. Should we be snatching those up if we see them?
I think it was! It’s hard to think the original Apple Macintosh, the original Mac personal computer, was released 30 years ago. Generally speaking, the most valuable vintage computers are generally prototypes; those first off the production line, or ones that were owned by famous users. An Apple Macintosh 128K can be found online for about $200 to $300. Unless you have a deep passion for computing, then it’s probably a bit too early to start buying them for profit.
Around the same time we were learning how to type, I started collecting Marvel and D.C. comic books. So what's the deal, are they going to make me rich some day or are they wasting my valuable under-the-bed storage?
Unfortunately, most comic books from the late 1980s and early 1990s aren’t particularly valuable. Lots of kids were collecting at that time and there’s just a ton of them still out there, partly because comics were marketed with the hook as being “collector’s editions.” Our generation wasn’t subjected to war-time paper drives that made comics from the 1940s so rare these days. Only time will tell if the next generation wants to own our old comics. Maybe they will now that Marvel and DC are finally turning all those storylines from our childhood comics into blockbuster movies.
Fine, now that you’ve decimated my retirement plan, what do you collect and what's your most prized or surprising possession?
I tend to collect mantiques with interesting forms or those with great stories behind them. I have a great triple-pedestal tramp art box and a whiskey flask from the 1890s. I bought the flask because it was made in the form of a comic strip character. It shows just how much times have changed. I just picked up a carnival shooting gallery target that’s all pockmarked from being shot over and over again by small lead bullets. I also have a collection of 25 rare and classic typewriters that I wouldn’t part with no matter how heavy they are.
That’s perfect, I have a Smith Corona Corsair Deluxe and an Underwood 378—we’ll talk. But before your interest in typewriters and mantiques, what was the career path that led you to becoming a writer and antiques expert?
Interest as a collector started when I was a kid. My parents kept fantastic things around the house and they always made me curious. I spent about 13 years writing for newspapers and magazines but I was always interested in collectibles as a hobby. My wife and I would load our kids and a bunch of vintage finds into our minivan at 3 a.m. and then spend the day selling and buying at a flea market. It was all great fun. Now I get to talk with collectors and see amazing things every day in my day job at the world’s largest collectibles auctioneer.
Not to leave the ladies out of this, are there any collecting trends that are popular among women right now? Womantiques, if you will.
Actually, lots of women collect mantiques. In fact, some of them think they are more interesting than the more cutesy collectibles that are available. Women collectors have turned vintage handbags into a hot trend. Just recently the record was set for the 10 most expensive handbags ever sold at auction. Vintage couture is also popular, mainly among women right now. Period gowns, evening gowns, and important vintage designer shoes seem to be gaining a bigger following every year.
Last, but certainly not least, have you met the Keno twins?
Indeed I have! They are just as friendly, engaging, and energetic as they appear on Antiques Roadshow.
Okay, that seals the deal, you’re my official mantiques hero. And I forgive you for the comic books thing. Thank you, Eric, for taking time to share your thoughts on the allure and opportunities of modern day mantiquing.
Interested in a career in antiques? Here are several potential career paths to explore:
-Retail antiques & collectibles shop owner (online/local)
-Antiques & collectibles writer/editor
-Public relations & marketing