Published: August 19, 2008
Usually conducted midway through the annual summertime waterfowl auctions conducted in New England, Ted Harmon of Decoys Unlimited jumpstarted the 2008 schedule by advancing his auction one full week and moving to the front of the lineup. The sale, taking place July 21 and 22, featured nearly 800 lots of decoys from around the country.
Prices were solid for the majority of the decoys; something that proved reassuring not only to the crowd on hand, but also to the auctioneers whose sales would follow during the course of the next couple weeks.
Shorebirds led the sale with an oversized willet bringing home the gold.
“There are not enough superlatives to accurately capture the elegance, presence and importance” of the oversized willet decoy that had captured the attention of all serious collectors, proclaimed Harmon in the catalog. Once thought to have belonged to a group of so-called “Fred Nichol” shorebirds, the maker of the exceptional shorebird is now believed to be John Wilson of Ipswich, Mass. The circa 1880s decoy had deep relief carved wings and split tail, and condition was described as very good with only some minor restoration to the bill and a couple of small neck checks. The paint was virtually intact with a couple of dings.
A large shorebird, it had a girth of 12 inches and measured 15 inches from bill to tail. Estimated at $75/125,000, bidding on the lot was active with it selling at $230,000.
Its rigmate, by the same maker and in good overall condition with only high-spot wear, was positioned in an upright pose and was approximately the same size. Offered as the following lot and estimated at $50/75,000, this rare willet shorebird sold for $138,000.
A Mason glass-eye black-bellied plover in late fall or winter plumage, circa 1905, was another of the shorebirds to do well. Harmon cataloged the lot as the exact decoy pictured in Goldberger and Haid’s reference book Mason Decoys, A Complete Pictorial Guide and stated that the “so-called beetle head” style indicated that it was a special order decoy. The shorebird, with a provenance of Howard Waddell, was in excellent original condition and the paint was described as “superb and rich.”
Estimated at $14/18,000, the rare plover took off as it crossed the block with several chasing it towards the selling price of $74,750.
Another Mason shorebird to do well was a rare and early split-tail ruddy turnstone. Also from the Waddell collection and another of the shorebirds to have been featured in the Mason book, it was termed by Harmon to be “A centerpiece decoy that one could build a collection around.” Harmon also commented as it crossed the auction block that it very well “may be the finest example ever found.” Very few of the ruddy turnstone shorebirds were made and this example retained the deep Mason paint swirls that collectors look for. Estimated at $12/18,000, the rare shorebird brought $63,250.
A rare black-bellied plover by A.E. Crowell with excellent drybrush feather painting sold at the low end of estimates at $46,000.
Also offered was a rare gunning rig of 11 yellowlegs shorebirds by New Hampshire carver George Boyd. All of the decoys were sold as “untouched and in excellent original as found condition.” The decoys were rescued when they were discovered in a basket next to a furnace in a seasonal Massachusetts home located near the ocean, and provenance listed them as the “Talbot Family” gunning rig.
The yellowlegs were said to be excellent examples of Boyd’s earliest style with exaggerated neck and flattop heads. Fingerprints were visible in the paint on some and remnants of the original brown wrapping was stuck to the sides of several others. The rig is believed to have been unused and possibly stored in the same basket in the basement since they were made. Harmon proclaimed “each and every one an example of Boyd’s best work.”
The Boyd carved rig carried a presale estimate of $90/100,000 and bidding on the lot was active with it hammering down at $149,500.
The top decoy of the auction came as a Mason premier grade widgeon drake was offered. Also with Wadell provenance, the decoy was said to have a more elaborate paint job than is normally seen on a widgeon, with more detailed swirling paint and coloration around the wings and the speculum.”
Bidding on the lot was brisk; it never broke stride as it shot past the presale estimate of $30,000. When bids from the gallery and the telephones slowed and competition narrowed, the price escalated, with it finally selling at $66,700. A pair of Mason challenge grade whistlers, also pictured in the Goldberger-Haid reference book, doubled estimates at $35,650.
Another factory bird to do well was a Dodge Factory Canada goose decoy in excellent original condition. The first of the decoys to have been parted out from a rig almost four decades ago †Harmon still referred to it as “Fresh from the original rig. This was the first one out and [it] sold at a Bourne sale in the 1970s. In outstanding original paint, it exhibited very little wear for a bird of this age.” The lot carried a presale estimate of $12/14,000, yet when the underbidders finally relented, the goose hammered down at $47,950.
A rare and desirable pair of matched hunting rig mallards by New Jersey carver John English sold just below estimates. In all original condition and with exceptional feather paint, the pair displayed only minimal gunning wear and sold at $74,750.
Decorative decoys also did well, with a Ward Brothers preening pintail with both wings carved in a raised position and the head turned dramatically to the right selling between estimates. Marked on the bottom, “Made for Ed German’s collection by Lem Ward,” the decoy sold at $25,300.
Crowell minis were abundant at the sale, with a large collection having been consigned by Fritz Talbot, as well as numerous other examples. The Talbot collection yielded 50 “earliest period” miniatures and also consigned was a complete set of 25 birds that had been ordered directly from Crowell.
Of the Talbot collection, Harmon stated, “These important carvings are without a doubt one of the most important groups of miniature Crowells that have surfaced in decades.” Each of the birds was marked with the species handwritten on the base, which was “common to Crowell pieces carved during the pre-stamp or pre-brand era.”
The first day of the auction opened with the Talbot miniature collection of Crowells and the first lot would set the tone for the day. Estimated at $3,5/6,500, the rare whistling swan on a carved stone base sold for $10,350. A preening golden eye drake was hammered down at $6,210, and a Canada Goose realized $5,175. A common loon sold at $9,200 and an old squaw drake realized $5,060.
A half-sized Crowell carving of a mockingbird marked with the rectangular brand from the Waddell collection brought $8,625, a hooded warbler mounted on a stick with a carved inchworm attached $6,900, and a gold winged warbler realized $5,750.
Other decoys and shorebirds in the sale that attracted attention included a Crowell ruddy turnstone shorebird at $23,000; a willet by Charles Thomas of Assisippi, Mass., $21,850; a Mason black-bellied plover $20,700; a Mason curlew $20,700; a Mason low-head challenge grade bluebill drake $20,700; and a Mason glass-eye mourning dove went out at $18,400.
Prices include the buyer’s premium. For information, 508-362-2766 or www.decoysunlimitedinc.net .
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