NEW YORK — Leaving his home in Sweden at 15, Edward H. Bohlin (1895-1980) arrived in New York City in 1910 but soon developed a passion for the Wild West. Within two years, he was participating in cattle drives in Montana and worked on Buffalo Bill’s ranch for some time. He opened a leather shop in Cody, Wyo., in 1920, but because he had an overactive temper, he was repeatedly in trouble with local law enforcement. He ultimately decided to get out of Dodge by joining a Wild West show headed to California.
At a performance in Los Angeles, actor Tom Mix approached Bohlin to buy his handmade calfskin jacket. “Others soon recognized the flair in Bohlin’s style and he began to appear as an extra in cowboy movies and started making tooled leather gear for stars like Mix, William S. Hart, and others,” according to the Bohlin Company’s website. Setting up shop in Hollywood, Bohlin quickly became known as the “saddle maker to the stars.” Legend has it that the company made more than 12,000 saddles; today, it focuses on belt buckles and jewelry.
Bohlin’s parade saddles, spurs, belt buckles and other items were made of fine gold and silver and leather in elegant designs that were beautifully worked without being gaudy. They attracted a loyal following among Hollywood’s elite and his parade saddles were fixtures in many editions of Pasadena’s famed Tournament of Roses parade. Bohlin himself declared he had personally ridden in the parade in every year from 1922 to 1973.
The craftsmanship Bohlin and his artist-engravers employed was highly prized then, and their early work, especially pieces dating between the 1930s and 1950s, continue to be coveted.
Brian Lebel of Brian Lebel’s Old West Events in Santa Fe, N.M., said the Bohlin company represents the best of this expensive, specialized material. “It’s a name that has always had respect and conveys quality,” he said, noting that Bohlin’s work was classy yet sexy. “His saddles have a certain quality to them; most of them aren’t overdone.”
A circa-1930s Bohlin sterling silver figural parade saddle brought $42,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2023 at Dan Morphy Auctions in conjunction with Brian Lebel’s 33rd annual Cody Old West Show & Auction. This saddle bears a strong similarity to the Marietta design in Bohlin catalogs and was embellished with bucking broncos, covered wagons, silver conchos and Texas longhorn cattle. The saddle’s 12 corner plates had repousse figures with rodeo scenes, including roping, bucking horses and bulldogging.
Not everyone has the desire, wherewithal or space to collect saddles, however. Unsurprisingly, Bohlin’s belt buckles have long been one of his most sought-after items. Actor-stuntman Richard Farnsworth, noted for his roles in Western movies and television shows, reportedly wore a Bohlin buckle in each production.
“I think it’s the buckles that everybody seems to relate to. Almost every movie star in the ‘30s, 40s and 50s all wore Bohlin belt buckles,” Lebel said. “There is a wide range so everybody can get a Bohlin belt buckle. Vintage buckles pretty much have made his name well-known around the world.” A Bohlin three-color gold buckle, No 382 (a design also known as let ‘er buck), depicting a horse and rider in relief with a twisted rope edge, gold flowers and filigree scrollwork, sold for $3,000 plus the buyer’s premium in June 2013 at Brian Lebel’s Old West Events.
Spurs don’t tend to bring the highest prices among Bohlin items, but the promise of owning a pair of Bohlin’s own parade spurs, personally-used and made, drove bidding up in a January 2022 auction. The oversize pair of spurs, custom made to accommodate what Bohlin called his “Big Saddle,” attained $236,000 including the buyer’s premium at Brian Lebel’s Old West Events. Bohlin and his top artisans created these spurs in sterling silver and three-color gold on stainless steel with black leather straps. The delicately chased gold surfaces feature a large portrait of a Native American man’s head in a full feathered headdress on each spur along with extensive scrollwork encasing the initials “EHB” and flowers. The stainless steel rowels sport a pie-cutter design.
Hollywood and the cowboy era are inextricably linked, and Bohlin’s craftsmanship helped bless and strengthen that union. Westerns were wildly popular on television and in films in the 1940s and 1950s, and the current television show Yellowstone is reviving interest in vintage cowboy items. A Bohlin-marked and silver-mounted double gun rig earned $34,250 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2019 at A&S Antique Auction Co. The rig’s strap is engraved “To Louie from the Red Riders 6-18-34” and is thought to have been a gift to director Lew Landers from the cast of the 1934 movie The Red Rider. The rig features unusual skeleton holsters and is embellished with engraved diamond conchos and sterling poppies.
Scott Tarbell, owner of New Frontier Show and Auction in Loveland, Colo., has seen firsthand the insatiable demand for Bohlin gear, especially saddles and buckles. “The market for Bohlin has never weakened,” he said.
The aforementioned Bohlin-owned spurs represent an exception. Most Bohlin-made spurs are accessible to collectors as evidenced by a pair of his parade spurs that went for $2,700 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2019 at New Frontier Western Show & Auction. His appeal across the decades speaks to these works being pieces of art, Tarbell said. Bohlin’s oeuvre is “captivating with really great craftsmanship. It’s a piece of art and just the way he used silver and gold was a signature in itself. You don’t even have to be a collector to know who made it.”