Bird decoys are America’s only completely original form of folk art, and they are avidly hunted by collectors across the country.
By Sarah E. Fensom
One night in the 1950s, Adele Earnest, Americana dealer, founding trustee of the American Folk Art Museum and author of the 1965 book The Art of the Decoy: American Bird Carvings, was driving down a moonlit street on Taylor’s Island on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, when off in the distance she spotted a farmer’s bonfire. With a refined eye that could only belong to a long-time admirer of waterfowl decoys, she noticed a beautifully carved swan perched atop the flames. She immediately ran from her car, “screaming like a banshee”—as she put it in her book—in order to save the wooden bird. Preserved for posterity, the swan has since passed into some important collections—first the Alvin Freidman-Klein Collection and then that of Henry Stansbury, a Maryland historian who collects waterfowl decoys from the Old Line state and environs. In January 2007 Stansbury acquired the swan for $50,400 at an auction held jointly by Christie’s New York and Maryland decoy specialist Guyette & Schmidt.
While such classic 19th- and early 20th-century pieces are no longer used for the purpose they were made for, there’s no swan song for the decoy. These intricately carved and painted simulacra are America’s only completely original folk art, but they were not always prized. Tales of birds being burned, scrapped or just plain undervalued are not uncommon. However, in the early 20th century, Americana collectors, sportsmen and birders began to notice the unique beauty of decoys, and since then interest has steadily increased. So much so, in fact, that at the same 2007 sale where Stansbury bought the salvaged swan, an exquisite red-breasted merganser by Lothrop Holmes (1824–99), an early carver who made his living in Kingston, Mass., as a cemetery superintendent, went for a record $856,000. Margot Rosenberg, the head of Christie’s American furniture and decorative arts department, notes that a combination of factors led to the high price. “The rarity and condition of that bird played into it. It was an early bird by a known carver.” Gary Guyette, also cites the bird’s provenance as a large part of its appeal. “It was from the Mackey family. Bob Mackey is the most famous decoy collector. His family had retained this one, and it was in great condition.”
Rarity, condition, and provenance are essential criteria to all collectors of the decorative arts. However, decoy collectors tend to become enamored of particular carvers or birds from specific regions of the country. Elmer Crowell is generally considered the Rembrandt of decoy carvers, because of his artistry and style. The East Harwich, Mass., native was also prolific, having carved over 2,000 birds from the age of 10 until his death at 90 in 1954. Of the top 10 highest-selling decoys at auction, six are by Crowell. In September 2007, Crowell’s preening pintail drake and Canadian goose sold at a Guyette & Schmidt auction for $1.13 million. Kory Rogers, the curator of the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, which boasts a collection of over 900 decoys—many of which from the collection of Joel Barber, considered to be the first known collector of decoys—considers Crowell’s black duck preening itself to be one of the most exemplary decoys at the museum. “The details of Crowell’s painting and carving are just amazing,” says Rogers. “He would paint feathers for each changing season.” In Art of the Decoy, Earnest describes the unique appeal of Crowell’s pieces. “The Crowell touch is unmistakable, although his styles of carving and painting vary, as might be expected through the fifty-odd years of his work.” Earnest also reveals that Crowell, though a hunter himself, noted the decorative appeal of his decoys, and carved many of his for the shelf rather than the pond.
New England birds are among the most popular decoys and generally command the highest prices, according to Rosenberg. But other regions of the United States—popular sporting areas and those in sync with species’ migratory patterns in particular—have long histories of decoy use and carving, and now have burgeoning markets. Collectors, particularly those who are sportsmen or birders, tend to want birds from their home states. Former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson’s passion for decoys developed after he began hunting. When he knew he wanted to start a collection, he laid out a few criteria for himself: “They had to be hand-carved with original paint, and they had to be from well known Illinois River carvers.” In particular, Thompson sought out the works of Robert Elliston. “A lot are in poor condition. People didn’t know they’d be folk art so they’d burn them. To find an Elliston preener—in good condition—that’s about the greatest thing!” This past April, Thompson purchased a rare Elliston preener for $100,625 at a Guyette & Schmidt auction, adding to his 40-piece collection.
Stansbury has a similar allegiance to carvers from Maryland and neighboring Virginia. “From Maryland, there are early decoys from the late 1700s and 1800s. Maryland has arguably the best hunting because of the grasses in the upper Chesapeake Bay, where there are tons of shorebirds. Maryland decoys are characterized by the canvasbacks—they were sold in the flea markets for as much as $7 for a pair; that’s the equivalent of $100 today. But if you wanted a blackhead, they would go for only $1 a pair.” In his book Ira Hudson & Family: Chincoteague Carvers, Stansbury writes about the carver’s abilities and his life in a small town. “Ira Hudson could barely spell his name,” Stansbury says, “but he made beautiful pieces. I’m very interested in his artistic side, how he created forms just out of his imagination, and I just love the history.”
The fact that carvers were self-taught and often not attempting to create pieces of art, but rather useful hunting devices, adds not only to their appeal, but to their intrigue. “Gary Guyette always says, ‘You could throw a Clorox bottle into the water and it would work,’” says Rosenberg, “so why are these decoys so elaborate, so beautiful and unique?” Robert Shaw, an expert on American folk art and author of many books on the subject including the recent Bird Decoys of North America: Nature, History and Art, describes the goal and style of the late 19th- and early 20th-century carver: “The purpose of a decoy is to fool a bird just long enough to get it in range. For the carver, it’s more about capturing something essential about the species. The birds see differently than we do, so there has to be something symbolic. This is particularly true of the guys who would sell to the commercial gunners to make money.”
The production of waterfowl decoys in late 19th-century America is inextricably linked to the legacy of hunting . “One of the results of the Civil War was that all these men could shoot,” says Stansbury. “They all hunted, and it became a sport.” Guyette explains, “At that time, wild game was legal to serve. Market hunters would go out at night and come up on the birds, and shoot a couple hundred of them and then buyers would come around. A lot of decoys were carved for that reason.”
Because the demand was so great in the second half of the 19th century, decoys were made in factories as well as by independent carvers. Today, birds from the Mason Decoy Factory in Detroit, which produced commercial decoys from 1896 to 1924 and shipped them all over America, are rare and achieve high prices at auction. In the early 20th century, a sportsman could get 12 Mason “Premier-grade” decoys for $12, but in January 2000, one Mason Premier-grade wood duck sold for $354,500 at a Guyette & Schmidt and Sotheby’s sale. Birds from the J.N. Dodge Factory, another company out of Detroit, which operated from 1883 to 1908, command prices in the $100,000 range today.
Demand for decoys as hunting tools dwindled within the first few decades of the 20th century. The Migratory Bird Act of 1918, in response to the dwindling populations of ducks and geese in North America, put restrictions on commercial hunting practices .However, at roughly the same time, early collectors like Joel Barber were beginning to acquire waterfowl decoys and treat them as pieces of art.
The market for decoys hit a peak in November 2007. “Since then it’s gone down 20 percent,” says Guyette, “but this April it went up a little.” He adds, “These days, I’m very happy to see a picture of a $10,000 decoy. That’s very marketable; $400,000 and up is hard to sell.” Rosenberg notes, “We had a really successful sale on September 29—an American decorative arts sale—we’re seeing the market go up. You can still get a very good bird for the high hundreds and low thousands—especially factory birds; ou can pay a couple thousand for a good one. Of course, the masterpieces go up and up.”
Surprisingly, there are reputable contemporary decoys, as well. Mark McNair and his protégé, Cameron Macintyre, carve decoys that command around $12,000 on the auction market. “They still make them in the old style,” says Stansbury. When it comes to decoys, style is everything.