chriscraft

Ray Pohja Master Leather Carver Floral Belt Found

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Today I was driving past one of my favorite Antique consignment shops here in Milwaukee and I decided to stop in. I found what looked to be a hand tooled western floral pattern on an old used leather belt. It was behind the glass counter so I asked if I could take a close look at this item. First thing I looked for was the maker's mark, I was now holding a belt carved by Ray Pohja. This was exciting,, an actual work of art by one of the Master Leather Carvers of all time. The detail is amazing and the freehand decorative cuts on the back side of this belt is pretty flawless.

I have no idea when this belt was made or what it's worth. It just had to come home with me.

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Nice find! Enjoy going through shops like this never know what kind of treasure's you will find.

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Very nice find!

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After inspecting this leatherwork for a while, its no doubt he was good at what he did. I've only seen pictures of his work but I think this is a good example of his high end belts. It not only has his trade mark floral pattern but also filigree with inlay work and his clean decorative scroll cuts on the back side. Truly a master at his craft, I can only wonder how long it took him to construct one of these belts.

Does anyone know how to put a date on this work? I searched and found two makers marks he used. One has all capital letters in his maker's mark and this one has some lower case in the maker's mark.

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Looks like the carving could leap off the belt. Beautiful. Cheryl

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Very cool find!

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Being a leather carver myself I am stoked that I found this piece. The belt was a consignment that had been sitting inside that counter for a few months. The price had been reduced due to potential customers not being interested as it was missing the Western buckle they thought it should have. I had been inside this same shop at least three times this year and had not seen this belt before. I'm just glad it was still available, buckle or not.

I have to admit, I only visit antique shops in search of vintage leatherworking tools. I have only found a few small hand tools in the past 8 years since I began going to these shops with my wife. I've been inside too many to keep track and feel it finally paid off. So it was definitely a rare find for myself.

I will be a good keeper of this belt and learn from it. For me, it's more than just a leather belt.

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I don't blame you, that is a great find! Thanks for posting the pictures.

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After doing a little research on this style of belt. I believe this is what is known as a "Trophy Belt" or "Trophy Style Belt". This belt is 1.5" wide and would fit most trophy buckles.

Looking at this floral carving, I can not see a repeat in pattern throughout the entire length. Maybe Ray Pohja intentionally designed this as one of his go to patterns or he just simply free handed this entire layout. Even the belt loop was finished in the same style, filigree cut, inlayed and back lined to match this belt. All edges are finished and looks to be hand stitched with a hand awl. I am excited to own one of his prized belts.

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How is that belt stitched? It almost looks like it's buckstitched but with thread instead of lace.

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Bob, it looks just as you describe. This had to be intentional, all the way to the tooled edge work making the burnished edge appear scalloped in shape.

I've been searching for pictures on the web of similar belts by Ray Pohja to compare this belt to. I haven't found any so if anyone has any pics please feel free to post.

I would like to build a display case for the belt. Anyone have any ideas how to display a belt like this?

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I met Ray once and I was a good friend of Bob Dellis who was also closely associated with Ray years ago. I believe Bob learned a lot from Ray. If my memory is correct they both were carving for a famous saddle maker in Arizona at the time, and were either room mates or stayed at the same boarding house. Their styles are very similar, but I think Ray came fist so Bob probably learned from him. Bob is deceased, and I don't know about Ray.

Most of their work was in fact free hand although Bob did use "tap off" flowers on a lot of his Sheridan style work. The free hand scrolls on the back of the belt was kind of a trademark for both of them. They both used a lot of tri color technique using the natural leather color, under a resist and oil and one dye producing three distinct shades on the belt according to the pattern.

As to the current worth of Ray's work, I have (a few years ago) seen a few of his belts for sale at Clint Orms Silver Smiths shop selling in the neighborhood of $800 to $900 to go with his very high quality and high dollar custom buckle sets. Depending on condition being like new, your belt could be quite valuable to the right person.

That's all….Iv'e strained my memory.

Paul

Edited by sheathmaker

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Thanks for the information Paul. At first I figured this belt in its current used condition would be worth $300-$500 all day long. That was before I read that Ray Pohja had died in 2010. One can no longer purchase a new belt like this anymore unless some shop has a few laying around. I also believe this belt is quite valuable to the right collector but I have no intention to offer it for sale.

I also go to local estate sales in search of vintage tools. I just cant believe when I see someone's entire collection sold for pennies to the dollar of what they are really worth. Family members are left in charge of selling items they have no idea on the actual value. It just saddens me to think of the family not getting in on some of the money they deserve. So for this very reason I would like to have this appraised one day and have documented paperwork for an item like this. That way when I am no longer around, this can get passed down the serious collectors who will appreciate what Ray Pohja once made.

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That's an amazing find! I know that Ray and Bob Dellis were roommates for several years, and that he taught Bob. He also made most, if not all of his own tools. They both worked together at Porter's, many years ago. I'd love to hear more stories, and learn more history about both of these guys.

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I was able to find an original 1957 copy of Lucky Eight Belt Book that features a few belt patterns from Ray Pohja. While digging around some old craftool Doodle Pages I also found one of his pages.

This small glass/wood display case will do till I find a better presentation shadow box.

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That's an awesome display. Heck, I'd leave it in there. Unless you wanna send it to me? :cowboy:

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Thank you for sharing this story, I can't get over the belt loop. I am new to this art, I love learning about and seeing this type of work. You are a lucky man, or was it luck? Carry on, might be the message.

Jim

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What a treasure you found. Cherish it always. The old masters were beyond belief in their creations.

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I finally had a opertunity to have this beautiful belt appraised. My wife and I just got back from the  St. Louis, Missouri Antiques Roadshow filming. It was our first time attending the AR and the waiting lines were long as to be expected. 6,000 admission tickets were issued for this location. 

The appraiser wasn't able to tell me anymore than what I already knew about this unique leather belt. He seamed to think it was incomplete and missing the buckle. I mentioned that Ray Pojha was not a jeweler or buckle maker. He only worker with leather and it's the way you would receive it from him. I said that to me, this belt was as complete as it gets.

 The belts craftmanship and detail did get the appraisers attention as he had not seen one with free hand scroll work on the lining. They passed it along the booth to get second opinions. The belt was then taken to another side enclosed booth for furthur evaluation while I waited. Finally one appraiser returned with my belt and was able to tell me that he felt confident one of Ray Pojhas belts of this quality had sold in auction for $1200. He was able to apprised my belt in the $800-$1200 range but felt it may go for more if in the right market. 

 I was able to get him to agree that this belt was complete and not missing any parts. However he still insisted on me finding a suitable era correct buckle to better showcase this belt. The average person would view it incomplete. Funny that the same consignment shop that sold me this belt felt the same way.

  I wasn't picked to get filmed on center stage but I have suspicion I was filmed during the final appraisal. The only way to find out is to wait for the three episodes of Antiques Roadshow 2017 St. Louis to air on television. 

 

 

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 My wife purchased this small wall mount shadow box for my Ray Pojha belt. Its been hanging in our wall for a couple years.

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I would have gone with a longer box, so that you can really see the artwork. But, adding the book was an extra nice touch :)

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Great luck for you! I've got to start looking in those shops more.

I visited a shop in Buffalo, Wyoming this summer and found a half dozen belts, but I was only looking for the buckle sets, and the belts were bare. And, not that good either. Time to kick up the search! Thanks for sharing.

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