Published: March 15, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Copley Fine Art
HINGHAM, MASS. – Copley Fine Art’s March 4-5 decoy and sporting art sale got 2022 off to a good start, with a total of $3,461,317. Coming off a strong 2021, with the firm’s gross sales of $9 million, this sale showed the continuing strength of those markets and augers well for 2022. The top lot, a pair of wood ducks by Shang Wheeler, sold for $216,000; three other lots sold for more than $100,000 each, and more than 75 lots sold in five figures. The 556 lots were comprehensively described in a catalog of more than 350 pages, with extensive descriptions of lots being offered, information on many carvers, artists and collectors, along with essays by Steve O’Brien on collecting miniatures, Canada geese, shorebirds, collecting wood ducks, information on the Dodge Decoy Factory and more.
In addition to sporting paintings by well-known names in the field, the sale included more than 100 miniature carvings, which auction house owner, Stephen “Steve” B. O’Brien Jr, owner of the company, and Colin McNair, decoy specialist, thought was probably the largest selection of miniatures in a single sale, providing collectors with an opportunity to acquire carvings from a wide range of carvers. Elmer Crowell may have been the first to produce miniature carvings, and there were many in this sale, but collectors could also choose from miniatures from other leading makers, such as Alan J. King, Wendell Gilley and others. There were also examples by contemporary makers, such as Mark McNair, Colin’s father, and Frank Finney, as well as others. Interestingly, the miniatures were presented in roughly chronological order. Elmer Crowell, it is believed, began carving miniatures when the 1918 passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act significantly reduced his market for full-sized working decoys. It was also about this time that collecting decoys became a “thing” when Joel Barber used that term in an interview. Barber would go on to write the first book on the subject of collecting decoys in 1934, and his collection of about 400 birds forms the core of the Shelburne Museum’s decoy collection, one of the largest in the United States (Shelburne has an online webinar and exhibition of Elmer Crowell decoys, with Kory Rogers, the museum’s curator, narrating. They also have webinars on other decoy related subjects.)
The first day of the sale started off with more than 50 miniatures. Works by Alan J. King (1878-1963) are among the most sought-after, and the five highest prices were achieved by his works. Joe Ellis, in Birds in Wood and Paint, commented “of all the carvers of miniature and decorative birds in the mid-Twentieth Century, Allen J. King was without a doubt the most gifted and versatile artist.” Earning $33,825 was a circa 1940 pair of belted kingfishers on a branch, just 3½ inches tall. Both have raised, relief-carved split wings and fanned tails. King sold many of his carvings through the upscale Crossroads of Sport, described by Colin McNair as “the place to shop for sportsmen who had everything,” but kingfishers are not on King’s 1938 list of 42 species available. The catalog speculates that this pair may be his only kingfishers. King’s circa 1940 pair of screech owls mounted in a tree cavity brought $20,400. King’s carvings sometimes included an entire family of birds. His pair of pintails, with five ducklings, was only 2 inches tall and it sold for $19,200.
Elmer Crowell carved dozens of species of miniatures (perhaps as many as 190 different species) mostly in three categories: song birds, shore birds and ducks, which he sold not only to his decoy buyers and seasonal tourists, but also to schools and museums around the United States for species identification purposes. Sometimes he sold them in sets of 25 but few original, complete sets have survived. This sale included a set of 25 waterfowl, each numbered on the base 1-25, and it realized $33,000. Numerous other Crowell miniatures included a golden pheasant, which earned $13,200, a miniature curlew, which earned $8,400, and a goldfinch, which earned $7,200. There were several more.
Leading all the Crowells in the sale was a pair of working canvasback decoys with raised wings and turned heads. The catalog described them thusly, “They are considered by some to be the finest known pair of working Crowell canvasback decoys.” The pair sold for $102,000. From the Lew Horton collection, a full-size pair of mergansers realized $52,275. The painting shows extra care; the drake’s head is turned, and both were in original paint with light gunning wear. A kingfisher, 7½ inches long, carved for the mantel, with a yellow perch in its beak brought $33,825. An oil painting by Crowell of a descending flock of Canada geese realized $9,600.
The working decoys represented ducks and geese from many parts of the United States, the work of many carvers – known and unknown – and some very early examples. Provenance included birds from numerous major collections. Space constraints restrict this review to considering just a few examples, but the sale also included works by Lee Dudley, the Ward Brothers, Joe Sieger, George Boyd, Gus Wilson, the Mason factory, Harry Shourds and numerous others.
The highest price of the sale, as expected, was achieved by a pair of circa 1935 wood ducks by Shang Wheeler (1872-1949) which sold for $216,000. The pair was well-known to collectors, having frequently been written about and pictured and included in an exhibition of Wheeler’s work. This pair was considered one of his finest creations and had been in the collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller and apparently had been in Wheeler’s personal collection. Wheeler was one of Connecticut’s best-known carvers. Adele Earnest, in her 1975 book, Art of The Decoys: American Bird Decoys, illustrated the drake of this pair and noted, “Wheeler worked from nature. He loved to watch the ducks in local ponds, especially when they were relaxing and resting. He studied their attitudes and, in particular, their head positions. Then, he would go home and try to catch their gracious, fluid shapes in his manmade birds. He was a realist with a sure instinct for sculptural form.” This pair reflects the qualities Ernest referred to. The catalog description of these birds runs six pages and includes an essay by O’Brien on collecting wood ducks.
Tying for the second highest priced in the sale, $108,000, was a factory-made wood duck from the J.N. Dodge Factory, circa 1885. The company was in business a few years before the W.J. Mason company was in business. In the 1981 book Decoys of the Mississippi Flyway, decoy historian and author Alan G. Haid sums up this bird, writing: “A classic. The finest example known from the Dodge Factory.” The bird with which it tied for second highest price was a hollow-carved plover with extraordinary carving and construction detail by an unnamed Nantucket craftsman. This plover, with an egg-shell thin body, was similar to several of Crowell’s and had a raised wing with split wing tips.
Another star of the sale, selling for $96,000, was an oversized Canada goose decoy by Charles Safford, Newburyport, Mass. Safford carved decoys primarily for his own use. He was also a skilled furniture maker, silversmith, tool maker and leather worker. In the early 1920s he built a hunting camp on nearby Plum Island, where he lived year-round, and it was in a neighboring cabin that this and others of his decoys were found. His carving and painting was meticulous; the body of this decoy is essentially made from one piece of wood while the turned head, in a sleeping position, had been carved from eight separate pieces of wood. The exceptional paint was actually a second paint job by Safford when the first became worn from use. His work has been praised by several authors, including well-known decoy experts such as independent scholar Robert Shaw. Safford also carved decorative miniature decoys. Fifteen of these miniature birds are owned and exhibited by the Museum of Old Newbury, and among them is a sleeping goose, with feather and wing paint virtually identical to this much larger working decoy. The catalog description is six pages long and includes an essay by O’Brien on collecting Canada goose decoys.
The selection of amazingly life-like decorative carvings was also broad, including numerous winners of prizes at national carving competitions. A pair of male ruffed grouse carved by Jim Hazeley in 1984 was especially noteworthy and sold for $9,600. A circa 1988 flying ring-necked pheasant, 32 inches long, by Floyd Scholz, brought $14,400. Scholz is a five-time US National Champion and the 2005 World Master’s Best in Show Champion. His work is in several museums.
Copley’s fine arts specialist, Leah Tharpe, put together a strong selection of sporting art with multiple examples by Ogden Pleissner, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Edmund Osthaus, Frank Benson and others. It was a work by Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905) that drew the most attention, realizing $90,000. “Dog With Three Quail” was painted in 1883. Tait, one of the earliest of the sporting artists, was born in England and came to the United States in 1850. He spent a lot of time hunting and fishing in the Adirondacks and sold his first painting to Currier and Ives in 1852. Many would follow. His works today hang in numerous museums. There were five paintings by Ogden Pleissner (1905-1983). “Golden Hours” was commissioned for the Hercules Powder Company’s 1953 calendar, and it earned $69,000. His works are in more than 30 public collections.
A watercolor by Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969) was inscribed “‘The Rock in the River’ ©A. Lassell Ripley, Upper Glory Hole on the Northwest Miramichi” on a label on the back. It sold for $39,000. Another watercolor of his, “Grouse on a Winter Morning,” sold for $33,000.
After the sale, O’Brien said, “We were really pleased with the way it went. The market for miniatures has been hot and continued that way in this sale. There are a lot of Crowell collectors out there and we had good examples for all of them. The catalog looked good.”
Prices given include the buyers’ premium as stated by the auction house. For information, www.copleyart.com or 617-536-0030.
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