Waterfowl decoys rank among the most beautiful, evocative, and truly American forms of folk sculpture you'll find. Here, a longtime Antiques Roadshow appraiser examines their place in the market.
By Nancy Druckman
Waterfowl decoys and the birds they represent speak to the vast diversity of the American landscape: abundant waterways and flyways, salt marshes, open seas, and freshwater rivers that give habitat and haven to game and fish. They also attest to the creativity and diversity of the expert carvers who created them. And each bird reflects the region, water conditions, methods of hunting, and species of the region in which it was made.
Collectors of folk art have been showing their appreciation of waterfowl decoys for years: The finest examples can sell for mid-six-figure prices. In January 2000, for instance, Sotheby's sold a decoy of a sleeping Canada goose by Elmer Crowell for $684,500 (see photos above and on p. 14). More recent Crowell pieces that brought six-figure prices include a black-bellied plover ($240,000) and a "turned-head" yellowlegs ($108,000) sold in May 2005.
The history of decoys spans the history of American folk art as well as the history of U.S. art and culture. The earliest examples were created by Native Americans and date back 1,000 years, long before the arrival of the first white settlers. These decoys were made from sticks and skins and feathers. They could be assembled quickly to bring their avian prey within range.
Above is a detail from the $684,500 Elmer Crowell goose.
With the establishment of colonial settlements along the coastal areas and inland rivers of the American continent, and later into the 19th and early 20th century, hunters developed more durable and reusable decoys made from painted wood to attract live birds for both food and for sport.
The heyday of waterfowl hunting, and hence decoy making, occurred in the period of time between the end of the Civil War and World War I. Advances in weaponry, as well as the development of a vast system of railroads, provided both the technical means and the ability to supply fresh game to expanding markets.
Sporting clubs also proliferated after the Civil War, with gentlemen hunters traveling to private clubs solely for the pleasures of sport and camaraderie. These clubs provided employment for a burgeoning group of expert carvers. By 1895, the seemingly inexhaustible supply of game birds had been ravaged and depleted by unfettered hunting- so much so that spring shooting was prohibited in New York in that year. Later, by July 1918, the U.S. Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which completely banned the interstate sale of fowl.
Above : A bidder at Sotheby's paid $22,800 (January 2005) for this 19th-century cedar eider drake. The decoy, 7¾ inches in length, is in original condition, but is missing one glass eye and shows small period repair to one side of the body.
The decoys that were made within the time period of the "great hunt" have, however, endured as one of the most important and evocative forms of American vernacular sculpture. The best of these examples capture, by means of "visual shorthand," the essential character of appearance, attitude, and animation of the bird. With economy of means, each carver addressed the specifics of the species, its natural habitat, and the way in which it would be hunted. Ultimately, they created an art form of spectacular beauty and inspiration that has made an important and lasting contribution to the legacy of American art and culture.
Today, decoys have enormous appeal because they're a tangible reminder of the beauty of American geography-the quiet solitude of rivers, lakes, and coastal seas, the abundance and diversity of wildlife and waterfowl, and the prowess of the hunter and the friendship of men.
As remarkable art objects, decoys are stunning reductions of the birds they mimic, but, as in a great piece of abstract art, they manage to project the essential attitude and animation of the living bird. They have profound appeal today, because they make up a vast, new repository of American sculpture that is now beginning to be appreciated and pursued beyond the parameters of the traditional decoy collector, by collectors of the best of American art.
Today's prices for a good example can range from $500 to $500,000 depending on rarity, condition, and maker, and of course, the condition of the collector's finances.
The trending-up in the value of decoys has evolved over the past several years, and it comes from the classic conditions of supply and demand. As the appreciation of decoys as an American art form has spread, more and more collectors began chasing after a group of objects that are finite-thus more and more people are competing for fewer and fewer objects.
Once the objects of desire within a defined group of collectors, decoys have broadened in appeal. The market has expanded to include enthusiasts of American folk art and academic art as well. Major auction sales across the country have drawn widespread attention and have brought recognition of decoys to a whole new group of buyers.
Among the most animated and lifelike of Elmer Crowell's decoys is his plover. Few are known to exist; this one sold for $240,000 in May 2005.
WHO's WHO Among DECOY MAKERS
In my personal canon of master decoy makers, I would rate Elmer Crowell, Lem and Steve Ward, and Lothrop Holmes as my favorites.
Crowell (1862-1952) was born on Cape Cod, spent time in his youth as a market hunter and cranberry farmer, and managed a hunting camp at Wenham Lake in Massachusetts for an affluent Boston physician. In 1912, at the age of 50, Crowell began to carve decoys and decorative pieces. In the period from 1912-1925, he created the best of the best-geese, pintails, black ducks, plovers, yellowlegs-all rendered with consummate sculptural power and subtle, almost tactile brushwork.
Here's an example of the work of Lem and Steve Ward: a hen mallard (c. 1942) that sold for $27,000 at Sotheby's in January 2006. Pictured below: a ruddy turnstone crafted by Lohtrop Holmes that sold for $470,000 at a joint sale by Guyette & Schmidt and Sotheby's in 2000.
Lem and Steve Ward (1895-1976, and 1896-1984) of Crisfield, Md., began their decoy business in 1926, billing themselves as "Counterfeiters in Wood." Steve was the carver and Lem the painter; together they created a group of working decoys (that are gunned and hunted over) of strong, pliant sculptural forms enlivened with patterns of brilliant paint.
Lothrop Holmes (1824-1899) was born into a family of shipbuilders in Kingston, Mass. His small output of decoys was made essentially for his own use as a hunter. The mergansers, ruddy turnstones, yellowlegs, dowitchers, and plovers reflect the varieties of shorebirds and game that populated the windblown waterways of New England until the latter decades of the 19th century. Holmes' work is prized for its pronounced elegant abstractions and the abstract power of the paint that underlines the simple shapes. As with all examples of art, beauty is in the eye of the beholder-given the caveats of authenticity and integrity of condition.
Where to find great examples of decoys? Over the past several years, important private collections belonging to famous collectors have been dispersed through such auction houses as Guyette & Schmidt (which specializes in decoys) and Sotheby’s, Skinner, and Christie’s. There are also dealers across the nation who specialize in decoys, plus a number of regional shows. (See Decoy Magazine’s Web site, listed below under “Publications,” for a show calendar.)
AUCTIONEERS, APPRAISERS, & DEALERS
Nancy Druckman is senior vice president and director of the American Folk Art Department at Sotheby's in New York. She's also an active supporter of the American Folk Art Museum in New York and has been an Antiques Roadshow appraiser since 1996.