Collecting Vintage Duck Decoys

Collecting Vintage Duck Decoys

I remember that the wooden duck decoy sold for $260 at a Crisfield, Maryland estate auction. At the time (1974) I believed that to be a lot of money for the item. The decoy wasn't particularly well-carved and it seemed rather beat up. It certainly didn't qualify as "folk-art", as duck decoys do today. When the bidding ended, the old gentleman standing next to me turned to his friend and remarked "you know, my grand-daddy had a shed full of those up on the (Chesapeake) Bay. One winter he just burned the whole lot of 'em for firewood. Sure wish I had 'em now, they'd be worth some money."

"Worth some money" indeed. Today, vintage hand-carved wooden duck decoys created by well-known carvers regularly sell for six figures. Even nondescript but well-executed decoys can sell for many hundreds of dollars. In 2007, a collection of Elmer Crowell decoys was sold by Stephen B. O'Brien Fine Arts for over $11 million USD – about $1.13 million each. Early decoy carvers are today held in the same regard as painters and sculptors. No one would think of using their decoys to hunt ducks (to say nothing of using them for firewood).

How did it happen that today's highly regarded art form was burned as scrap just a few generations ago? The answer is found in examining the shifts in public opinion, government regulation, and technology that dismantled the cottage industry. Taken together, these factors tell a story that informs collectors of not just decoys, but other artifacts as well.

When Europeans first colonized North America, the skies were thick with wildfowl. Early journalists told of flocks so large that the sun was blocked as they flew by. Unfortunately, early settlers watched the birds fly over with no idea of how to get them to their tables. In Europe, fowling – and hunting in general – was a sport for landed aristocrats. Commoners didn't own land for hunting, so when they migrated to the Americas they had nary an idea of how it was done. Their guns didn't have the range or accuracy to bag high-flying birds, and they had no bird-dogs to fetch their kill. As usual, the colonists turned to the Native Americans for help.

Natives had been hunting birds for thousands of years. Using bows, slings, and stealth they were able to catch enough birds to make fowl a dietary staple. You, of course, know how this was done: they tricked the birds into killing range by using decoys.

Native decoys were not the detailed representations that we know today. Rather, they were approximations of the form and plumage of the type of birds being hunted. Hunters would weave tule rush into the shape of a bird, or form a duck out of clay and stretch the skins of previous kills over the form. Often, feathers were woven into the decoy. Heads and necks were painted to match the colors of the species being sought.

The tule rush decoy pictured herein was discovered in the Lovelock Cave in Humboldt County, Nevada, and dates to ca. 400 BC-AD100. It was collected by Mark R. Harrington and is found in the National Museum of the American Indian.

Colonists copied the Native's hunting technique, placing groups of decoys ("rigs") in estuaries and marshes to attract birds. The European's decoys were more sophisticated than Native lures. They were made in two basic forms: floaters and stickups. Floating lures were made to attract swimming gamebirds – ducks, swans, and gulls. Typically, bodies were carved from a solid piece of wood (usually pine or cedar), then hollowed out to make them lighter to carry. Heads were carved separately and attached with dowels. Decoys were painted to match the hunted fowl. Weights were added to the bottom of each decoy so they would sit low in the water without flipping over. Stickups were made in similar fashion, but were made to represent shorebirds such as sandpipers; legs were added and pushed into the muddy shore.

During the second half of the 19th Century, demand for game birds and their feathers exploded. Improvements in transportation enabled the fowl to be shipped quickly to markets. Victorian millinery fashions made heavy use of decorative bird plumage. Decoys were being manufactured by thousands for private and commercial use. There were no restrictions on hunting, and market hunters harvested thousands of birds a day (collectively).

Severe hunting pressure caused the gamebird population to drop precipitously; so much so that conservationists took their concerns to State and Federal authorities. The first State to cede to the conservationists was New York, which outlawed spring shooting of breeding shorebirds in 1895. In 1918, market hunting was dealt a severe blow by the Federal government, which outlawed the interstate sale of wildfowl. The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 – between the United States and Great Britain (acting on behalf of Canada) – was specifically designed protect the migratory bird populations that were being decimated by over-hunting. The statute made it unlawful to pursue, hunt, take, capture, kill or sell migratory birds. The statute does not discriminate between live or dead birds and/or bird parts including feathers, eggs and nests.

Consequently, hunters had little need for thousands of decoys. In 1928, shorebird shooting was completely banned by the U.S. government. Decoy carvers could still make and sell their products anywhere, but there was little need for them. After World War Two, mass-produced plastic decoys eliminated the need for hand-carved hunting decoys altogether. By 1960, hand-carved hunting decoys were a tool of the past. Decoy carving had instead become a folk art.

As with other collectibles, the value of a decoy lies in its condition, rarity, artistic presentation and provenance. Experienced collectors offer the following tips for newbies:

  • Be sure the item is hand-carved. Cast resin decoys are virtually indistinguishable from wood; they often have the same feel and heft. But, mold-cast decoys will have a symmetry that hand-carved wood doesn’t have. To identify a hand-carved item look for distinctive chisel and knife marks, wood tear-out and chipping along the chisel lines, and variations in color.
  • Verify the species represented by the decoy. Some species are rarer (and more valuable) than others.
  • Unusual poses (sleeping, swimming, and feeding) are more difficult to render. Such decoys are generally more valuable.
  • Just as with painters, the work of some carvers commands a higher price. Learn "Who's Who" in the carving trade. A good place to start is Decoy Magazine’s Master Carvers List.
  • Attend trade shows. Read books. Visit museums. Subscribe to magazines. The more you learn, the more you will see when you look at a decoy.

As you collect, assemble a written provenance for each item. Don't be too concerned about making buying mistakes; all beginners make them (and learn from them). Over time, the distinctiveness of your collection will grow, as will your love for the art.

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