Published: July 20, 2021
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Copley Fine Arts
HINGHAM, MASS. – Steve O’Brien’s Copley Fine Arts Auctions successfully combined an offering of superb decoys with an offering of outstanding sporting art on July 10. Highlighting the sale, and meriting its own 138-page heavily illustrated catalog, was the Linda Johnson collection of decoys, which included three “dust jacket” plovers by Elmer Crowell, the jewels of any collection, and other outstanding decoys. Johnson grew up in a family of collectors and her “eye” gravitated to birds that blurred the line between folk art and decoys, if there is such a line. The sale grossed $4,442,939, with the Johnson collection accounting for $1,764,000. Six decoys brought six-figure prices and about 100 more finished in five figures. That produced an average of $9,350 per lot sold.
There were dozens of carvings by Elmer Crowell as well as decoys that had been included in the book and exhibition, “The Masterworks of the Illinois River,” as well as others by masters of the art including Orlando Bibber, Robert Elliston and his wife Catherine, Lemuel Ward, Charles Perdew, Mason factory decoys, miniatures and decoratives, Long Island shorebirds, a Kankakee pintail drake and more. Miniatures by Crowell and Allen King (1878-1963) brought particularly strong prices. Sporting art included works by Ogden Pleissner, Alden Lassell Ripley, Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait, works by contemporary artists and an early painting of a quail family by Titian Ramsay Peale. There were fish decoys, a rare crow call, and much more.
Copley produced two extensively researched and illustrated catalogs for the sale totaling more than 400 pages, often with detailed biographical information on collectors, carvers and artists, particular types of decoys from particular regions – such as shore birds from Nantucket and shore birds from Long Island, vintage photographs, historical information, condition statements, literature citations and exhibition histories where appropriate. O’Brien and decoy specialist Colin McNair often shared their insights as to the merits of particular decoys and carvers, and fine arts specialist Leah Tharpe did the same for the artwork in the sale. The catalogs are worthwhile reference works on their own, with much information not included in the online listings.
Several of the most desired decoy lots in the sale came from the Linda Johnson collection. She is president and chief executive officer of the Brooklyn Public Library, heavily involved in the arts and culture activities of New York and Philadelphia, where she grew up in a home surrounded by antiques and folk art. She and her late husband had a home on Barnegat Bay, N .J., and became fascinated by the migratory birds of the region, and several decoys of that region were in her collection. Her mother, Joan Johnson, was a long-time trustee of the American Folk Art Museum, who has been quoted on her collecting philosophy, “more is more.” Brought up in Philadelphia, she was neighbors of folk art collectors Irvin and Anita Schorsch and, as far back as her teenage years, friends with their cousin David Schorsch. Linda’s shorebird collecting was influenced by David, and the first “serious” bird that Johnson and her husband thought about buying was an egret on the cover of an early David Schorsch catalog. When they called David, they learned the egret had been sold but they were “hooked.” When contacted prior to the sale, and asked about the Johnsons, Schorsch commented, “Linda grew up in a family of knowledgeable, aggressive collectors, surrounded by wonderful things. That egret they wanted had been sold but they later bought it when it became available at an auction.”
Johnson’s collection resulted in some of the highest prices in the sale, including the three highest priced decoys, which collectively brought $984,000. These were “dust jacket” plovers, carved and painted by Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) and illustrated on the dust jacket of John and Shirley Delph’s New England Decoys. The skyward gazing plover, perhaps the only one known, earned $372,000; the turned head plover, perhaps one of only three known, earned $324,000; and the feeding plover, perhaps one of only four known, earned $284,000. (This one was passed at the auction but sold about an hour later.) The three decoys had originally been collected by Anthony Waring, one of the pioneering decoy collectors. Each was acquired by collectors Michael and Julie Hall, directly from Waring and entered the Johnson collection when the Hall collection was dispersed. Two were bought at the Halls auction in 2005 and the third was added two years later. The “dust jacket” plovers are considered by many to be among the finest decoys ever produced by Crowell, with detailed carving of the wings, bodies and heads, with painting representing Crowell at his best. Another trio of these birds were sold by Copley in 2019 for more than $1.1 million. At that time, Brian Cullity in The Songless Aviary, The World of A.E. Crowell & Son said, “They are the supreme creations of Elmer Crowell and represent the finest in decoy carving and painting. The deeply carved and boldly sculpted bodies are finished with blended feather patterns, unique to the Crowell hand.” It’s worth noting that of the 100 highest priced decoys sold over the last few years, 31 were done by Crowell.
The Johnson collection decoys also brought some of the other higher prices of the sale. A long-tailed (also known as oldsquaw) drake by Orlando Bibber, finishing at $150,000, was the fifth highest priced decoy in the sale. Bibber, from South Harpswell, Maine, is believed to have only carved decoys for his personal use and took his time with each. This particular carving, according to the catalog, “is the finest known Bibber decoy and one of the best decoys produced in Maine.” A feeding yellowlegs by Fred Nichols (1854-1924), Lynn, Mass., sold for $96,000.
As was noted earlier, Linda Johnson appreciated decoys as folk art, whether or not the maker was known, and a fine example of that was a 40-inch-tall great blue heron, whose maker is not known. “When well conceived and endowed with the awkward grace of the great bird itself, a heron decoy can take command of almost any collection.” So wrote William J. Mackey Jr in American Bird Decoys. This was one of those decoys Mackey had in mind, hollow carved and clearly showing its multi-piece construction, with its original crest and a long, flowing tail. The original, worn-paint surface showed heavy wear and working repairs. It reached $18,000. Other examples included decoys naming Nina Fletcher Little and Adele Earnest in their provenance.
Not all the exceptional decoys came from the Johnson collection. One such decoy, a high-head pintail drake, came from a rig now known to have been owned by Herman Trinosky and sold for $186,000. Circa 1895 and used on the Kankakee marshlands of Indiana, this bird and the few other known examples were uncovered earlier this century in a farmhouse in Indiana, some stored for decades in burlap bags, which is not an ideal storage medium for painted objects. The maker has yet to be positively determined and research into this group continues. A preening mallard hen, pictured and described in Masterworks of The Illinois River by Steve O’Brien and Julie Carlson, realized $96,000. It had been carved about 1890 by Robert Elliston and painted by his wife, Catherine, who is considered one of the preeminent decoy painters, developing techniques later used by others. A rare Mason factory decoy just missed selling for six figures. Russ Goldberger and Alan Haid wrote Mason Decoys, the “bible” for Mason collectors. In that book, they twice picture and describe this slope-breasted mallard hen as “Mason at its best.” It brought $96,000.
Miniatures were hotly contested, and many brought prices far in excess of estimates. An offering of about nine miniature groups by Allen J. King, (1878-1963) surprised all. These were truly miniatures, with none more than 6 inches tall, and several included very small chicks along with their parents. Topping the selection was a pair of mourning doves on the branches of a tree with two young. It reached $21,600 against an estimate of $3,000. It was under 6 inches tall, but large in comparison to a family of bobwhite quail, mother, father and four chicks, which was only 1¾ inches tall, on a burl base. The detail was incredible and the family finished at $16,800. A grouse family with five chicks, 2½ inches tall, finished at $15,600, and a family of wood ducks, with five ducklings, even smaller, finished at the same price. Three other groups also brought five-figure prices. Apparently, it was the inclusion of young birds that caused the higher than expected prices. For comparison, a pair of pheasants, about the same size as the others, but lacking young, finished at $3,900.
Miniatures by Elmer Crowell also did well with a 2-inch-tall Baltimore oriole bringing $5,700 and a 3¼-inch dowitcher bringing $5,400. But not all popular miniatures were birds. A 5-inch-long carving described as a Minnesota hare by Frank Finney (b 1947) reached $6,000.
There were dozens of sporting paintings. Perhaps not truly of that genre, but nonetheless the highest priced painting in the sale, was a family of bobwhite quail set in a landscape with a winding river by Titian Ramsay Peale (1799-1885). The artist was the youngest son of Charles Willson Peale, and was well versed in natural history subjects, having accompanied a number of scientific expeditions exploring the West in the early Nineteenth Century. From a DuPont family collection, it reached $90,000, tripling its estimate. A large painting dated 1971 by a British artist of a herd of elephants earned $57,000. It was done by David Shepherd (1931-2017), who lived in Kenya for a short time and was active in conservation causes throughout his life. Bidders also liked watercolors by Ogden Minton Pleissner. “Waiting For the Rise,” depicting fishermen in a boat on a rocky river, sold for $54,000, and “June Trout Fishing,” known to be a personal favorite of the artist, sold for $36,000. A painting of alert white tail deer in a wintry forest scene by Ken Carlson, (b 1937) went out for $36,000. The artist, whose works are in several museum collections, wrote of this work, “‘A Feint Sound’ portrays a cold quiet winter day when any slight sound can be unsettling and cause an instant turn of the head. I feel I accomplished my goal in this painting as I wanted to capture a mood of tranquility in the landscape and the beauty and wariness of the whitetails.” The top price for watercolors by Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969), a 1945 work titled “Two Woodcock,” was $45,000. An etched bookplate by Ripley of two men fishing alongside a stream sold for $420. Numerous pieces of sporting art could be bought for under $1,000, with many under $500.
A few days after the sale, Colin McNair said, “This was one of our best sales ever. We set some new records and saw some birds bringing prices far higher than they did a few years ago. We had a record number of bidders, as well. The outstanding decoys and paintings brought outstanding prices, so we’re all quite pleased with the sale.”
All prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.copleyart.com or 617-536-0030.
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