Having been an avid collector and trader of antique hunting decoys for nearly 20 years, and having gone to many major auction sales where I have witnessed such articles sell for anywhere from a few dollars to well over $500,000 (the actual record price for a decoy presently is above $800,000), perhaps I can offer a few comments for the novice collector. This is not meant to be exhaustive of the subject, but rather some basic information to help keep newcomers out of harm's way. And, no, I don't own any of those super expensive decoys myself, but it sure is fun to watch the 'big boys' battle it out on the bidding floor! And even more fun to actually hold one of those decoys in your hands at an auction preview, moments before it moves on to its new home.
Welcome to our hobby. You are joining a very interesting and varied group of men and women who are a pretty tightly knit bunch, most of whom know each other very well and are honest and helpful. We do also have a few characters who are less than totally reliable, unfortunately, so be careful. As in all fields, there are those who are good, and those who can't wait to take advantage of the unsuspecting and ill-informed. Some sellers simply just don't know decoys and will make up any old story to create a sale. Better to spend a bit more and buy from a decoy expert; you'll be safer in the long run.
Now, let me distinguish modern, decorative waterfowl carvings from true, old, working decoys; it is the latter group of which I write. Then, let me further separate the average, run-of-the-mill working decoy from the truly classic antique variety of reputed 'investment quality' which finds its way into collections and usually commands a higher dollar. Again, it's these latter decoys of which I speak. You can find ordinary old decoys at just about any flea market for $25 or so, and you can't really get hurt at that level. I'm particularly writing here about the ones which sell for considerably more, and for those who are prepared to spend that kind of money. More and more, these better class decoys are being offered on-line as well as in the big auction house sale rooms. Much greater risk is involved. So, what should you know and look for? The following guide is meant to apply to decoys at all levels of collecting interest, but is really just basic info for the beginner. I'm not writing this with any pretense at being an expert but, rather, as a fellow collector who hopes it may assist newcomers.
Millions upon millions of hunting decoys have been made over the years. Many old time carvers made and sold them for extra pocket money, often getting
only $2 a piece, maybe $50 for a dozen if they were good and "in
demand". What makes some of them worth so much more today than others? Is it all just in the eye of the collector? What makes grown men and women bid frantically and spend thousands to buy a small chunk of painted wood that some carver or factory made to fire shotguns over? Some of these things even got more shot up than the live birds they were meant to attract! Please note that I have just referred to 'carvers' and 'factories'. Not all old hunting decoys were made by individual carvers; many were replicated 'en masse' by factories using duplicating machines (lathes) which could turn out numerous blocks at the same time. A lot of this took place during the 'heyday' of market gunning, roughly 1880 to 1920, when large numbers of waterfowl were slaughtered to feed the demand of restaurant patrons craving fresh-killed wild duck, etc.
Collectable, vintage hunting decoys are antiques, highly prized for their craftsmanship, rarity or folk art attraction. Most collectors would agree that condition is of the utmost importance: is the paint all original?; have there been any repairs or touch-ups?; is the wooden body structurally sound?; have the head, bill or even the glass eyes been replaced? Original condition is the big key, and the closer it is to mint, the better. An 'investment quality' decoy's value diminishes as its originality is lost or altered. Re-painting or repairing can subtract much of its worth. Conversely, an absolutely mint decoy can be astronomically greater in value, even well beyond that of one in very good or near-mint shape. Be sure to look carefully and ask detailed questions before you buy. It is only very rarely that anything as old and well-used as a hunting decoy which has survived 100 years (give or take) can still be found in immaculate condition. If it is, it must have been held back as a 'mantle bird'. Ask the seller why it has no marks. Honest wear is usually to be expected with most decoys; a few scratches, shot marks and dings are the norm. However, if you see paint covering the shot marks or dings, the decoy has likely been re-painted and is often of lesser value than had it not. Look for uniform wear overall; it is very questionable to find wear in one portion but not another. Ask yourself whether you could be looking at a repro which has been faked to look old; or whether an older, damaged part of the item may have been repaired and touched up to make the whole bird look more presentable and appealing.
Rarity of any item contributes to value; decoys are no exception. Given that some decoys date back as far as the mid to late-1800's, certain examples or species made by a carver may be few in number. They will be more highly sought after with higher prices resulting. Most carvers created decoys which reflected the different species according to predominance in their local area; more of some, fewer of others. Prices for a teal or wood duck (usually more colorful and less numerous) may be much higher than say for a bluebill or black duck (less colorful and often made in greater numbers). That is, makers' individual decoys carry their own intrinsic values; not all black ducks, for example, by the same carver are worth the same amount. You need to become familiar with the current market price scale or standard for the various carvers, and then for the relative values within the scope of different decoys they produced. Market prices fluctuate; carvers may be highly sought one year, then fall out of favor, only to return again later on. Get to know the market trends. Opinions on decoy quality and value are hotly debated; private sale prices (outside of auctions) are usually negotiated, even between friends. Consult auction sales records where you can find price histories/trends for most carvers and regional styles. Do your homework first; window shop and compare before you buy. Ask established collectors; most are only too willing to welcome new members to the decoy collecting fraternity.
Condition, paint quality and form, or sculptural beauty, are three things most often looked at first by top collectors. Being able to identify the carver or maker is important, but not essential. Many decoys achieve value because they were made by a carver whose reputation was very highly regarded, like an Elmer Crowell or a Joe Lincoln in the US, perhaps a George Warin or Jack Wells from Canada. However, even unknown decoys have achieved very high auction values; having an identifiable maker is not crucial. Many makers never signed their work; most brands or names on the bottoms of decoys are those of the owners, not makers. Decoys can be grouped according to regional carving patterns or styles. The better carvers generally influenced others located nearby or were copied by them.
It takes time to learn how to tell good paint from bad, to tell repros and fakes from the real thing. Ask questions. Deal with known sellers whom you can trust and take birds back to if you are not happy. Go to shows and auctions. Get to handle the better class decoys at the display tables; seeing and handling them up close can teach you invaluable lessons. Build yourself a reference library; there are any number of excellent books out there describing the history of many carvers and decoy factories with great photos of their work. Study the photos carefully; learn the history of the carvers.
Be warned: decoy collecting is highly addictive. Many serious collectors began by buying one simple, cheap bird, then jumped in and gathered everything they could find. Almost overnight, every shelf becomes crammed and you soon own a hundred or more. Then, most of us get a bit more realistic, especially when spouses complain about being crowded out of their homes. We rein in, become a little more discriminating and choose a carver, a style, a region to concentrate on. We downsize, clear the shelves and set out to seriously collect "a few" examples of the better stuff. You wake up one day realizing that you've just spent $$$ buying that little wooden thing, and you're no longer part of the flea market crowd; you're going to the big sales like Guyette and Schmidt or Ted Harmon's "Decoys Unlimited", etc.
Remember, decoy sales activity and prices achieved are always fluid; values fluctuate and carvers come into and go out of fashion, just like artists or styles of antique furniture. Over time, prices for the better pieces have risen, some dramatically, but, like the stock market, there are ups and downs. Since 1970, the trend has been markedly upward, with only a couple of minor hiccups.
Even if you just want to remain an eBayer, or plan on sticking to the simpler items found at garage sales and flea markets, I strongly recommend taking out a subscription to 'Decoy Magazine' or 'Hunting & Fishing Collectibles' magazine. You will gain invaluable knowledge. Exercise care. Be cautious in purchasing. There are many re-worked, non-authentic, re-painted, re-headed items out there. But there are lots of great people with good birds too. Look hard; ask questions; you'll find them.
Good luck collecting. Find yourself a nice decoy. It's hard to dislike a duck.
This guide is written in appreciation of the extensive help received from many wonderful friends, authors, senior collectors, top-flight dealers and leading auctioneers who coached and assisted me over the years; I hope I have done justice to your teachings. I am also very pleased to add that it has recently been published in Decoy Magazine (slightly abridged version), and in the New Jersey Decoy Collectors Assoc. 2008 newsletter. Thanks for the support.
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