Before mass-produced plastic ducks became a hunter’s standbys, decoys were carved from wood. But what were originally necessary tools have become more than that as works of art prized by collectors.
“I think the reason they’re so widely collected is they’re a unique North American folk art,” said Zac Cote, assistant auction manager and gallery manager for Maryland-based decoy auctioneers Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter. “The majority of them were not made for the mantle; they were made as a tool to hunt with.”
With antique decoys, condition is vital, but more so is identifying the carver. Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter holds the world record for an auctioned decoy: in 2007, a red-breasted merganser hen by renowned Massachusetts carver Lothrop Holmes, circa 1890, sold for $856,000 — not bad for a decoy that probably cost a dollar way back when.
Holmes is widely considered a premier decoy carver, but he wasn’t prolific; as such, his carvings, mostly done between 1860 and his death in 1899, are very rare. A recent merganser hen/drake pair sold in 2003 for $394,500, less than half the price of the near-mint hen.
“This was one of the finest examples,” Cote said of the carving. “It’s a beautiful piece of sculpture. It shows movement, and it’s a really good depiction of that species, both in the carving and the paint.”
Decoys became commonplace in the 1860s, but their usage is ancient. In 1911, two miners hired to harvest bat guano from Lovelock Cave in Nevada uncovered Native American artifacts, including 11 decoys dating back 2,500 years.
Decoys are used by hunters to lure ducks within shotgun range as those ducks look to flock up with others. In Maine, duck season takes place in the fall, and in some cases into early winter. Season dates are set after the establishment of a federal framework that state officials follow for the migratory birds.
The heyday of wood-carved decoys ranged from the 1860s until the 1940s. Serious collecting began in the 1930s, but exploded in the early 1970s. Collectors were as interested in meeting and getting to know the carvers as they were owning the pieces. By the early 1970s, when one decoy sold at auction for $10,000, this niche became serious business.
In New England, another big name in carving is A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass. Crowell’s carvings, primarily of shorebirds and waterfowl, are known for their intricate, detailed paint schemes. In the old days, hunters often repaired paint jobs on simpler decoys themselves — greatly devaluing them today — but Crowell’s work was so detailed that hunters often didn’t try.
That’s good news for sellers.
“We’ve sold five of his carvings for over half a million dollars each,” Cote said.
For Maine carvers, you can’t beat the work of Gus Wilson, who Benjamin Gaylord called “Maine’s Elmer Crowell” in his book “North American Decoys.” Wilson, formerly a lighthouse keeper on Monhegan Island, later transferred to South Portland before dying in 1950. Unlike Holmes, Wilson was very prolific, adjusting his style throughout his life.
“He never used patterns, so each one is different,” said Cote. “He was a folk artist… each one was individually made, different than all the others. Nobody else from the state carved as many different head positions and different [types] showing movement.”
So if you have old Grandpa’s old duck decoys kicking around in the garage, they might be worth quite a bit of money. But the carvers never signed their work — they weren’t treating them like pieces of art, after all — so it takes an expert to identify them. Cote said auction houses like Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter, which specialize in decoys, are just the places to check.
“Maine’s one of the places you can still find stuff,” he said.
To learn more about carved decoys, visit www.GuyetteAndSchmidt.com.