Early Elmer Crowell Bufflehead Drake Fetches $207,000 At Decoys Unlimited

The top lot of the auction was this rare and important bufflehead drake by A.E. (Elmer) Crowell at $207,000.

HYANNIS, MASS. — An early bufflehead drake decoy, made around 1910–1912 by the renowned carver A.E. (Elmer) Crowell (Massachusetts, 1862–1952), the highest-graded bufflehead drake by Crowell ever offered, and one of only two known in such a high grade, soared to $207,000 at a Decoys Unlimited Inc’s summer decoy auction July 28–29.

The sale at the Cape Codder Resort and Hotel took place in conjunction with Swap & Sell, an annual event staged by Decoys Unlimited that brings together dealers, collectors and other decoy enthusiasts from across the United States. The auction and Swap & Sell drew a combined crowd of about 400 people. A little over 900 lots were offered over the course of the two days.

The Crowell bufflehead drake was easily the auction’s top lot, sailing past its $125/175,000 estimate. “It was also the rarest and finest Crowell decoy we ever had the privilege of handling,” said Ted Harmon, owner of Decoys Unlimited, Inc. “It was essentially a flawless bird, made during Crowell’s prime and carved as a working decoy but never rigged.”

Many of the decoys offered were made by Crowell, which helped push the sale’s gross total to just under $1 million. But other outstanding carvers were represented, too, names such as Henry Keyes Chadwick, Captain Clarence Bailey, Joseph Lincoln, Ira Hudson, George and Harvey Stevens, Domingo Campo, Lem and Steve Ward, Allen J. King, Mason and Evans.

“It was a well-rounded auction, with something for everyone and every pocketbook,” Harmon said. “The market is extremely strong, especially for the better decoys. We had a large collection of near-mint decoys by Charlie Joiner from the Ballard collection. Prices ranged from $300 to $2,000. Already we’re considering a sale in November, as decoys are still arriving daily.”

Harmon added, “Decoys at all levels are back on the rise, with the greatest price hike in the very good to better examples. Prices are once again in the mid-to-high-five-figure level, with the occasional rare decoy in pristine condition bringing six figures. I believe the rare Crowell bufflehead drake that sold for $207,000 is a high water mark for a single decoy in some time.”

The top earners of the auction were overwhelmingly examples by Crowell. His life-size decorative carving of a black-bellied plover with original paint and mounted on an undulating “rock” base brought $40,250, while a goose with immaculate original paint changed hands for $31,050.

A Crowell gunning model dowitcher featuring split tail with raised wingtips, recently retrieved from a bank safety deposit box in western Massachusetts where it had been kept for the past 50 years, fetched $28,750; and a circa 1912 mallard drake with its head turned to one side, showing classic Crowell rasp work to the rear of the head, never rigged, went for $14,375.

An example of an early pintail drake by Crowell, with wingtips carved in deep relief, again with classic Crowell rasp work to the rear of the head and breast, with carved wing and tail feathers, rose to $13,800; and a gunning split tail black-bellied plover by Crowell, in fine original paint with anatomically correct bill and tack eyes, also brought $13,800.

Other decoys by Crowell most worthy of mention include a miniature running ruddy turnstone with split tail, on a painted rock base for $6,325 and an early example, three-quarter scale with original paint and feather detail, achieved $4,312.

One lot not carrying the Crowell name as its maker managed to crack the $10,000 mark. It was an important redhead drake made around 1900 by Henry Keyes Chadwick of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass. The example showed the influence of Chadwick’s mentor, Benjamin Smith. With deeply dished down wing molding in the manner of Smith, the decoy sold for $10,925.

Not far behind was a greater yellowlegs decoy by Joseph Lincoln of Accord Village in Hingham, Mass. (1859–1938). With its elaborate and fancifully painted depictions of the plumage of an actual yellowlegs, the exaggerated tall bird flew off for $8,625. Another decoy by Lincoln — a classic form goose “as found in rig” with zero paint enhancement — achieved $4,600.

A pair of decoys posted identical selling prices of $7,475. The first was a drumming grouse by the Rhode Island carver Allen J. King (1881–1963). It boasted outstretched and cupped wings, a fully fanned tail, fluted feathers and carved ruff. The other was a folk art carving of a canvas over frame goose, built on a grand scale circa 1902 by Captain Clarence Bailey.

A rare widgeon drake by one of the Stevens brothers (probably George) of Weedsport, N.Y., made circa 1895–1900, featuring a masterfully carved banjo tail and strong original paint, breezed to $5,750; and an early bluebill drake by Ira Hudson (Virginia, 1876–1949), done in his stylish and desirable “football” shape, with original paint and some gunning wear, made $5,405.

A fine example of a swing handle friendship purse by the Nantucket master Jose Formoso Reyes, with the top featuring a carved sperm whale on a rosewood-type plaque, made in 1971, knocked down at $5,175; and a carving of a sperm whale, carved from the pan bone, mounted on a later backboard, hit $5,175.

A historically important example of a goose by the Ward brothers, Lem (1896–1984) and Steve (1895–1976), both of Crisfield, Md., with its head turned sharply to the right and thrust slightly forward, hammered for $5,175; and a mallard drake by Domingo Campo (1887–1957), with raised wings and tack eyes, a brass tag on the bottom and original paint, gaveled for $4,888.

All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.

For more information, www.decoysunlimitedinc.net or 508-362-2766.

A life-size black-bellied plover, carved circa 1912 by A.E. Crowell, with original paint achieved $40,250.

“Unquestionably the best example of a Crowell goose we have seen,” Ted Harmon said of this example that attained $31,050.

The circa 1900 redhead drake by Henry Keyes Chadwick of Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., from the carver’s desirable early period realized $10,925.

A greater yellowlegs with elaborate and fanciful plumage by Joseph Lincoln of Hingham, Mass., fetched $8,625.

A folk art carving of a canvas over frame goose, built on a grand scale circa 1902 by Captain Clarence Bailey, made $7,475.

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