When you talk to Eric Bradley, he sounds like absolutely the last person you’d expect to put out a swaggering book titled Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff. Bradley, the Public Relations Director at Heritage Auctions in Dallas, comes across not at all like a dude-bro, but more like a character from “Fargo,” soft-spoken and unfailingly thoughtful and polite. A portmanteau of “man” and “antiques,” mantiques are not just for people with a Y chromosome, Bradley insists, even though the tagline of his book is “fueled by testosterone and attitude.”
“Although the name ‘mantiques’ implies cool stuff for men, there’s really no limit to who can collect these things.”
The debut of cable TV shows “Pawn Stars” in 2009 and “American Pickers” in 2010 sparked excitement about the idea of “antiques for men.” In this narrative, the antiques world had become an out-of-date feminized zone where everyone is a little too fussy about furnishings and china sets. Pickers and pawners injected the field with new life when they strode onto the scene, unafraid to hit the road and get their hands dirty digging through rusty junk. Thus, these guys are inspiring new mantiques shops across the United States, boasting items suitable for a man cave—a space where a man in a traditional marriage puts his guy stuff when his wife, expected to keep their home up to social standards, banishes it from the main house.
While the word “mantiques” is new, man caves are not. Starting in the Industrial Revolution, the genders were assigned “separate spheres,” with men dominating politics, business, and law, while women were in charge of the maintaining the home and the moral values of the family. For that reason, men began to establish spaces for themselves where they could be rude and crude without offending the delicate eyes and ears of “mixed company.”
As I am a woman, it’s tempting for me to roll my eyes and say, “Seriously? Men today feel like they need to create more room for themselves in the world?” But Bradley says the mantiques trend is a jokey way to make antique shopping less intimidating to the Average Joe—or Jill. His campy Mantiques book features items that objectify or idealize women, like pin-ups or Marilyn Monroe’s chest X-ray, as well as furniture used as gothic décor with embellishments that are downright frilly. It mostly spotlights boy-toy collections that include cars, barware, oil signs, baseball, rock posters, guitars, guns, tools, video games, and hunting and fishing memorabilia—as well as not-so-obvious mantique themes such as oddities, Mid-Century Modern, and Art Deco. (Surprisingly, the militaria, comics, toys, and tobacciana categories don’t get their own chapters.) Perhaps the most disturbing object in the book is a pair of panties that were supposedly worn by Adolf Hitler’s girlfriend, Eva Braun—a sexualized piece of Nazi memorabilia that was looted from her private delicates drawer.
The ability to shock or wow people, however, is one of the main draws of mantiques. Over the phone from Dallas, Bradley explained to us what exactly mantiques are, how they are used, and how they can bring joy to anyone, man or woman, gay or straight.
Collectors Weekly: How did you get the idea to write this book?
“The idea of mantiques is just a more relaxed way of approaching collecting, a casual pursuit that’s also intellectual and highly personal.”
Eric Bradley: The idea for the book came from Krause Publications and editorial director Paul Kennedy, who approached me to write it in the spring of 2013. The chapter selections are actually the result of kicking around ideas with my colleagues at Heritage Auctions on the types of collectibles that people are pursuing now. I started to keep a file of weird and wonderful things that would cross my desk or that I would see in trade publications. At the same time, I noticed more and more shops with the word “mantiques” in the name popping up all over the U.S., everywhere from New England to California, with plenty in the Midwest. When I visited the mantiques shop here it Dallas, it all came together: All of those items I had been saving in that folder were on sale and presented in this one small shop. As I researched mantiques, I realized all these different stores are listed under the same name or a variation of the name and they all cater to men, but they sell different things. Using the word “mantiques” in your name is a different way to market antiques, capitalizing on the trend. It also helps people look at vintage things in a new light.
Collectors Weekly: What exactly are ‘mantiques’?
Bradley: It’s one of those things where you know it when you see it. I like to say mantiques are at the nexus of rusty, sharp, strange, vintage, and retro. It’s the type of thing that my dad used to keep in our basement, like a mounted jackalope hanging on the wall. Dad decorated our basement family room with things that my mother wouldn’t let him bring upstairs—coon-hunting trophies, farm implement signs, Tom Mix pocket knives, and woodworking tools that were very cool. Mantiques often go back to your childhood and things you grew up with. A lot of the mantiques collectors I’ve met have these odd things they keep. Thinking about it this way helps explain why unusual people do what they do and why they collect what they collect. They’re all different, but they’re all kind of the same, even though one guy looks rough and tough and hard to bluff and another guy’s a single dad in his early 30s.
Collectors Weekly: The objects in your book, ‘Mantiques,’ seem to be items that are considered cool or edgy, but often not things that appeal exclusively to men.
Bradley: Funny you say that because when I was planning out the book, I was hoping to encourage non-collectors to look at collectibles in a new light but then also to challenge that retro notion of masculinity. These items are just collected by the type of person, man or woman, who likes the odd and unusual. I actually did a photo shoot with a collector who’s a woman, Gretchen Bell, who owns Dolly Python, Dallas’ most influential vintage clothing and collectibles shop. She’s an eclectic collector who buys what she likes, and she had some phenomenal stuff. We just ran out of room in the book, but I’m saving that interview and photo shoot for the future. You’re right: There are a lot of things in the book that could be and often are collected by women. Although the name Mantiques implies cool stuff for men, there’s really no limit to who can collect these things.
Collectors Weekly: Yeah, your book often strikes me as a parody of this old-fashioned notion of masculinity.
Bradley: Yeah, it’s a tongue-in-cheek look at the collectibles business. Sometimes, non-collectors see the antiques business as very intimidating. A lot of people are put off because they don’t know what a chest-on-chest is or some of the other nomenclature that’s used for high-end antiques. What I wanted to do with Mantiques was break that down and show people that you can buy really unusual, cool, funky things and shopping for them doesn’t have to be intimidating. Collecting doesn’t have to be something that you take too seriously. And I think the concept of mantiques frees you to blend a lot of unusual items into one collecting category.
Let’s say you’re really into barware, or you’re tricking out your bar. You can keep a pair of vintage brass knuckles behind the bar along with a vintage cocktail shaker, and put a “Three Stooges” poster on the wall. Although they’re from different eras—like the “Three Stooges” poster might be from the ’30s, your cocktail shaker might be from the ’50s, and your other posters could be from the ’70s—they’re all part of the bar environment you’re creating. The idea of mantiques is just a more relaxed way of approaching collecting, a casual pursuit that’s also intellectual and highly personal.
Collectors Weekly: I’ve been trying to puzzle who or what represents the anti-mantiques. Is it the idea of antiques as stuffy, uptight, and breakable?
Bradley: I never thought that much about that. It’s maybe the purists who put too much emphasis on the object and not so much emphasis on the chase or the history behind the object. One thing I’ve noticed is that mantiques collectors like to look for stories along with the objects. Sometimes at traditional antiques shows or shops, the objects are venerated because they’re delicate or high-maintenance, or you have to be careful of the finish and the polish. They come with a set of conditions that you have to meet. But with mantiques, all that’s out the window—outside of the common sense that tells you not to repaint a vintage surfboard. Mantiques can be enjoyed for just what they are and for their original design purposes or the way they were created by the original artist. They’re much more low-key and user-friendly collectibles.
Collectors Weekly: Do you think the cable TV shows ‘Pawn Stars’ and ‘American Pickers’ have changed people’s perceptions of antiquing?
Bradley: Absolutely. They did a great job of rallying that collecting base. They gave a word to what it means to be a guy collector. They showed that the rusty objects are appreciated and that they can be collected even if they are beat-up.
Collectors Weekly: ‘Pickers’ is almost a swaggering ‘On the Road’-type adventure where you can travel and go into random barns and dig through piles of junk.
Bradley: I try to drive home that collecting really needs to be a social pursuit, along the same lines as the “Pickers.” It’s fun to find cool stuff on eBay, but you don’t really discover things you didn’t know you wanted unless you’re out there in shops and malls. Talking with auctioneers and friends that are also collectors, you start to share information. So there’s a social aspect to collecting mantiques that gets you out of your comfort zone.
Collectors Weekly: Do you consider yourself a mantiques collector?
Bradley: Yeah. Some of the things that I’ve got don’t really constitute a collection necessarily, but once they’re put together, it’s still pretty cool. I’ve got vintage ostrich eggs and tramp art, some coins, some nice prints and paintings. In a traditional sense, these things don’t belong together, and each item could be the start of a separate collection. To go back to your question about what’s the anti-mantique, I guess it’s the “collecting the whole set” mindset. That Franklin Mint approach to collecting doesn’t always work for a mantiques collector.
Collectors Weekly: What does your wife think of your collection?
Bradley: She’s very patient. There’s a lot of eye-rolling. She’ll often ask, “Why is that cool?” Collecting things like this is really a personal hobby. Sometimes you don’t know why you want something until you see it. It doesn’t have to make sense to anybody else.
Collectors Weekly: This idea that a wife takes over the house so her husband feels he needs a ‘man cave’—do you think that happens with young couples now?
“If a collector is taking a gentle approach, I don’t think that makes him any less manly. Mantiques are not necessarily burly and rough. You can be exactly who you are.”
Bradley: I don’t necessarily think so. In my case, it wasn’t an issue until our kids came, and then the breakable objects became a safety risk. We grew up in the ’80s, and back then, the home was more often divided that way: My father’s domain was the basement. We had a great bar down there; everything was covered in paneling. One side of the wall was a workshop where he could build furniture and carve bowls from wood burl, and part of the basement was a family room where he could kick back and have a beer. Today, I think young couple’s homes look more like what you see in Apartment Therapy. Even if you look through the pages of “Elle Decor,” you’ll see these unusual groupings of interesting objects sneaking their way into modern interior design now. So that division between the man cave and the rest of the house has been breaking down.
One of my favorite sellers is lostfoundart.com. I love the fact that they bring together similar but slightly different objects to create interesting art installations focusing on the design. Their site makes you look at antiques in a way that you may not have seen them before. It shows you that you don’t have to go crazy; you can have a unique collection with six, or even three, cool objects. It comes down to enjoying the design or the look of a thing, or the way that it stokes your childhood nostalgia, or maybe reminds you of someone important in your life.
Collectors Weekly: Can you explain to me what a Gentleman Collector is?
Bradley: At Heritage, we look at it as that sweet spot of American collecting or traveling from, say, maybe the 1890s to the early ’30s. In that era, a gentleman would have objects that would be picked up on foreign travels or collected for an intellectual purpose, like to study natural history. We’ve got a branded line here at Heritage called “The Gentleman Collector” auction series, which includes those items that are perfect for a gentleman’s study or a smoking room. They represent maybe a slower era when people could sit down and relax with their objects and study an item the way they would read a book.
Collectors Weekly: Funny enough, the most famous Gentlemen Collectors I know today are two sisters in Brooklyn, Hollister and Porter Hovey.
Bradley: Yeah, and the first shop using the name Mantiques in the 1970s was owned by two women in New York City, who sold luxury gentleman accessories to collectors. Eventually, it was taken over by men. Mantiques doesn’t have to live in the realm of being a guy.
Collectors Weekly: There seems to be a spectrum of mantiques collectors, from the rusty junker in overalls to the refined gentleman who might be called a dandy.
Bradley: If a collector is taking a gentle approach, so to speak, or takes more care of his appearance, I don’t think that makes him any less manly. Mantiques are not necessarily burly and rough. You can be exactly who you are and appreciate the things that you appreciate and still earn the respect of other male collectors. When I showed them the Mantiques book, the guys I interviewed about cars and tools commented that they loved the chapter on Carlos Cardoza’s Mid-Century Modern home decor. There’s a mutual respect.
Collectors Weekly: I appreciate that in the book several of the chapters focus on decorating, which hasn’t always been considered a masculine thing to do.
Bradley: Yeah, it’s more socially acceptable now. I just did an interview with “GQ South Africa,” of all places. But one of the things that the magazine picked up was that it’s okay to spend some time and decorate your space. When people are really into the collecting hobby, they can’t help but decorate their home with the things they’ve got. It’s just a natural extension. So Carlos lives inside his collection. If he were really pressed, I’m sure classic-car collector Gil would admit he’d rather live in his garage. It is breaking down that old-fashioned concept that men don’t decorate.
Collectors Weekly: For this reason, do mantiques collectors skew younger than regular collectors?
Bradley: I think so. An older generation took the approach that if you were going to start collecting, you itemized what you needed to acquire and then set about acquiring each piece to accumulate the whole set. Today’s mantiques collectors are a lot more laid back than that. They’re not so interested in being completists. Instead, they’re surrounding themselves with interesting things. Some of them are collecting strictly for décor and searching for objects that just look neat. Maybe you have a collection of three vintage typewriters, but you’re not going to necessarily fill your basement or try to obtain every typewriter that was ever made in Germany. But those typewriters look really cool on a shelf in your living room.
Collectors Weekly: Would the ‘whole set’ mentality exclude someone who dreams of finding every ‘Star Wars’ action figure ever made from mantiques?
Bradley: No, not at all. If you’re trying to complete a set of something like “Star Wars” figures, that’s not bad. What I’m refuting is the marketing push that says you need to have all of a particular set for your collection to be considered complete.
Collectors Weekly: I did a piece about a book on 78 collecting, a field dominated by men, and the author speculated that men more than women gravitate toward cataloging their objects in a numerical, completist way.
Bradley: I’ve heard of record collectors keeping a spreadsheet for tracking and trying to get everything from a certain label or genre. You can still serialize your collection and be a mantiques collector, as long as the impulse doesn’t spring from a marketing ploy or an infomercial. As long as your collection represents what you’re interested in and you appreciate it, then it becomes its own distinct thing. You don’t see mantiques collectors hunting down Beanie Babies or Franklin Mint items because they’re part of a collector set. It’s more about embracing your own individuality and going out and finding objects that appeal to you.
Collectors Weekly: In the book, you say mantiques collectors should be sellers, too.
“A lot of guys who collect this stuff would really rather wake up in a cabin near a lake than face traffic heading out to the office.”
Bradley: I do believe there’s a difference between being an accumulator and a collector. You want to make sure you don’t purchase so much that the collection starts to own you. If you start to sell things in order to trade up, bank that money and keep it separate from your personal finances. If you’re out at an auction and you buy a box lot for one cool thing, it’s important to sell off the others things in the box. You should also sell items in your collection when you’ve fallen out of love them or you’ve found better examples. A collection should be a living, breathing thing that’s always changing while staying true to you. You can sell things you’re tired of to a collector that would appreciate them more. Maybe you reach a point where you’ve accumulated enough that you can sell all your first purchases and replace them with something truly phenomenal. Each of these guys featured in the book trades up. If it’s not selling something on Craigslist, it’s taking it to a flea market. They’ll get a $25 booth for a day or two and sell off some pieces to stockpile cash or to make room for something new.
Collectors Weekly: I was surprised there weren’t chapters on toys, militaria, comic books, or tobacciana.
Bradley: I wish I would’ve had more room, but each of those collecting areas deserves its own book. I wanted to focus on things that were off the mainstream a little bit. For instance, there are a lot of blogs that talk about comic collecting, and some comic devotees only collect comic books and not a wide range of objects. With the book, I wanted to show collections that are really diverse, that might connect taxidermy to ceramics, as an example. I focus on collections that are works of art in their own right that took a lot of time, effort, and intelligence to put together. And by intelligence, I mean studying the history of different objects and buying things that are related, perhaps in a peripheral way.
The spread in Mantiques called “Five Mantiques You Shouldn’t Legally Be Allowed to Own” features a paperweight holding radioactive desert sand. That falls into the category of the undefinable. It’s a mantique, but I don’t know what other kind of collection that would fit into, perhaps some sort of a fine mineral collection. But you could have that on your bar as a cool conversation piece. Carlos could have it in his house as an example from the Atomic Age. It’s one of those things that crosses genres.
Collectors Weekly: The one thing in the book that flips me out is the picture of Eva Braun’s panties. I can’t even get my brain around that.
Bradley: (Laughing) Yeah, those are pretty nuts. They’re one of those things that a guy keeps in his collection just because they’re shocking. Some mantiques collectors have really crazy stuff. Again, those panties defy classification. What do you do with them? The traditional collector would have a hard time classifying how they would fit into his or her collection, but that’s not so much of an issue in the mantiques world.
Collectors Weekly: When you classify guns as mantiques, it makes me wonder if they’re considered masculine for their ability to wield power or threaten people.
Bradley: Well, I guess you could take it there. You can find whatever you’re looking for if you dig deep enough. But is an antique gun masculine in the sense that is it an object of power used to intimidate people? I don’t know if collectors, especially mantiques collectors, really think like that. I’m sure that aspect, the fact that it could kill somebody, is respected. But I don’t think they’re pursuing them strictly because they’re objects of power. When you look at Colt and Winchester firearms, those objects, whether you like it or not, actually were valuable tools either on a ranch or to tame the West. They were used to rob stage coaches and defend your farm from aggression. And I’m sure that some firearms collectors are women, and I guess you’d have to ask them whether they see their guns as a masculine object of aggression.
There are people who collect firearms strictly for the different patent developments. There’s a vast array of firearms with fascinating mechanical developments, whether they are hidden weapons, shotguns, or Tommy guns. The collecting base out there respects that level of inventiveness and ingenuity. But I don’t think the collectors I spoke with saw their guns as viable tools for hurting somebody. Sometimes just the design of a gun is pleasing to a collector.
Collectors Weekly: I am fascinated by the weird hidden guns in the book like the glove gun and the umbrella gun. Those seem like James Bond props.
Bradley: I can’t say this for certain, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the pen gun or the umbrella gun in the book had never been fired. Even though these objects were developed, I don’t think they were widely sold. So now they’re collectible oddities because it’s strange that somebody invented them.
Collectors Weekly: The Philippine guerrilla gun’s story is also fascinating.
Bradley: The fact that the firearm has a story behind it—about a marooned soldier who designed this crude weapon to help defend the Philippine Islands during World War II—is why it’s coveted now. When the manufacturers developed his gun for the mass market in the late 1940s, they tried to sell it to rural areas as a squirrel gun, but it didn’t work. You’re usually firing it at your hip because you can’t get enough torque to really hammer that pin unless you’re using your forearm, so you can barely aim it. Something like that is a mass harm sort of gun. Growing up in Upper Michigan, I’d heard about guns like this being developed. They’re extremely crude, but I tell you what, they are bloody dangerous. I think it’s just a piece of sawed-off pipe that you manually smash the pin to fire it off. It’s a great way to blow your hand off. It’s not a very useful gun, but mantiques collectors love to pursue stories like this one.
Collectors Weekly: The outdoors and tools chapters seem to be nostalgic for a time when people were physically connected to the world.
Bradley: It’s funny you mention that because I feel like that. I want to return to those days where your entertainment came from a walk in the woods or hunting with your dad. When I grew up, our whole family went hunting. It didn’t matter if you were a woman or a man. You carried a gun for bird hunting because it was a chance to be out close to nature enjoying the outdoors. Right now, our family is really into blueberry picking. When we grew up, berry picking season was the highlight of our entire year. Now people collect vintage berry baskets and sorters. I do think that longing exists because unless you put in a real, conscious effort, the more money you make, sometimes the farther away from nature you get. A lot of guys who collect this stuff would really rather wake up in a cabin near a lake than face traffic heading out to the office.
Collectors Weekly: Or physically making stuff with your hands instead of sitting at your computer all day.
Bradley: Right. When you look at the chapter on tool collector Bill Crawley, you’ll see he uses his tools even though they’re great collectible pieces and he’s paid a lot of money for them. He’ll use them to build furniture. There’s a sense of accomplishment when you get off your ass and get out in the world or build some furniture—when your life doesn’t revolve around the Internet. That’s not to say video-game collectors deserve any less respect, but for some guys, their collections are about an age when your weekends were spent outside.
Collectors Weekly: It also seems like part of the appeal of a random tool is trying to figure out what exactly it does and why it exists.
Bradley: In Bill’s case, if he’s not learning about a tool’s well-known owner, he’s learning why it was invented, maybe who invented it and what it was used for. With his hand tools, he appreciates doing things through a lost method. He sees these vintage tools as a way to preserve that way of life. At one point, he told me that that way of life was very simple, but it was a very difficult, backbreaking time.
Collectors Weekly: In the tools section, you say the rusty tools are often not the most valuable tools. Don’t mantiques collectors covet rusty things?
Bradley: The word we might be looking for is “appreciated” versus “valuable.” A valuable tool is in mint condition and several collectors are looking for a pristine example of a tool that was perhaps used on every farm in the country. They helped build America. A tool that’s appreciated might be one that’s covered in rust and showing the wear marks of a craftsman that used it every single day. So is that valuable? Sure it is, to the right collector. But those tools in poor condition probably won’t ever reach the level of the most valuable tool, which was a pristine 1876 Sandusky center-wheel plow plane that sold for $114,000. Bill’s tool collection may not be valuable to another collector, but they are to him because he appreciates what those pieces are and what they represent. The better condition, the more money a tool can bring in, but that’s another thing about mantiques collectors: They’re not always so geared up about the value of things.
Collectors Weekly: On the flip side, there’s also a nostalgia for early electronics like old computers and video games.
Bradley: That category of collecting will continue to grow. Gen X-ers are coming into an age now where maybe their children have moved on and they’re going to have some disposable income. When the Wii came out, it was so fun to introduce my 7-year-old to the original Super Mario Bros. On a Christmas morning not that long ago, I downloaded the game from Nintendo for $5, and we got a chance to play a game that came out 25 years earlier, but on new, state-of-the-art machinery. I think that sort of nostalgia will continue. My son is a Call of Duty freak. You would think that my daughters wouldn’t like such a violent video game, but they love playing Call of Duty zombies with him and their friends. I look at it, and I’m like, “I cannot understand the appeal of this. Every single theme looks the same.” But then they’ll say, “Dad, there’s nothing lamer than Super Mario Bros.”
Collectors Weekly: I’m realizing there are certain things I’m nostalgic for as a Gen-Xer, like vinyl records, that my Millennial friends have no interest in.
Bradley: The youngest person that I talked to in Mantiques, I think, is oddities collector Benny Jack Hinkle III, who’s in his early 30s. I keep hearing over and over again that Millennials don’t necessarily like precious objects, or they don’t want to collect things. I wonder in the future if that might change. That generation has been dealt a really tough hand; they face constraints we’ve never seen. The idea of graduating from college and not having any job opportunities would be terrifying. We didn’t have to go through that. Coming of age in the ’90s, it was like the Roaring Twenties all over again.
I think one thing that appeals to mantiques collectors is that there isn’t really an emphasis on money. You can gather these things with very little cash. Rob Bradford, the Gentleman Collector in the book, says he didn’t pay more than $300 for any one thing in his collection. He just spent time collecting it. In the future, I think traditional collecting categories like 20th-century glassware—but maybe not the art glass—will continue to shrink, but then the tech area is going to explode. I would not be surprised if people start to collect thumb drives: Some are shaped like figures, and some are covered in wood. They’re cool, they’re clever, and they have a practical use. Even now we’re seeing the vintage Apple computers bring big money. Bonhams just got nearly a million dollars for a 1976 Apple I. It’s astonishing. That’s a whole new frontier of collecting. I love it. Bring it on.
Collectors Weekly: Now I’m wondering what happened to my family’s Apple IIe.
Bradley: It feels strange that Generation X has aged to the point we’re starting to ask questions like that. My mom used to say that about Barbie dolls she had that became collectibles. And in the ’80s, she’d marvel about the collectibility of Fiestaware. Back in the ’40s and ’50s, Fiestaware was on their table. They would drop it and shatter it all the time, and they wouldn’t worry because it was so commonplace. Suddenly, in the ’80s, the prices for vintage Fiestaware went through the roof. It’s weird to think that our generation is going to remember computers and video-game consoles in the same way.
Four circa 1850 shadow boxes by William Hart & Sons show squirrels boxing. This set was shown at the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations in 1851, and hung in the corporate dining hall at Goodyear Tires in Akron, Ohio, for many years. (Via "Mantiques")
(Check out Eric Bradley’s book “Mantiques: A Manly Guide to Cool Stuff.” For further “mantiques” inspiration, pick up Joe Willard’s book “Picker’s Bible: How to Pick Antiques Like the Pros” or Hollister and Porter Hovey’s gentlemanly book, “Heirloom Modern: Homes Filled With Objects Bought, Bequeathed, Beloved, and Worth Handing Down.”)