Published: March 7, 2023
Review By Rick Russack, Catalog Photos Courtesy Copley Fine Art
HINGHAM, MASS. – Steve O’Brien Jr and his team at Copley Fine Art Auctions put together a solid collection of sporting art, working decoys, miniatures and decorative carvings for their Winter Sale, February 24-25. Indicative of the strength and variety of the sale, which was 95 percent sold by lot and saw about 50 items sell for more than $10,000, was the fact that the highest price, $180,000, was earned by a painting, and the second highest price, $90,000 was earned by a working decoy. Offered in this sale were more than 50 West Coast decoys from a single collection and more than a dozen Nantucket decoys.
Almost 20 examples of sporting art were among those top 50 items. “Prairie Wings,” a 1945 oil on canvas by Richard Bishop (American, 1887-1975) signed, dated and titled, was the star of the two-day sale, adding $180,000 to the sale’s total of $2,224,960. The painting was the frontispiece of Prairie Wings: Pen and Camera Flight Studies, published in 1946 by Edgar M. Queeny, a friend and patron of the artist. Bishop traveled up and down the Eastern seaboard, photographing game birds. He published two books, and numerous prints and etchings were published based upon his illustrations in those books.
Second place in the sporting art portion of the sale was earned by an action-packed hunting scene by Bob Kuhn (American, 1920-2007) “Close but No Cigar,” an acrylic which sold for $78,000. It was the type of scene Kuhn is best known for, showing a pouncing bobcat attempting to seize a flying grouse, set in a snowy winter landscape. The bird apparently narrowly escaped.
Canine subject matter is a perennial favorite with collectors of sporting art. This sale included “Pair of Aces” by Percival Rosseau (American, 1859-1937), depicting two setters in an open field with trees in the background. Influenced by friends in the Barbizon school, he developed a reputation as a master painter of dogs. One of his long-time patrons was Percy Rockefeller, nephew of John. D. Rockefeller, who built a private hunt club in North Carolina for himself and friends, with a cottage for the use of Rousseau, who was there frequently during the 1920s-30s. The painting brought $72,000.
More than 50 Pacific Coast decoys were offered from the collection of Richard and Dorothy Wheeler. Richard began collecting in the 1960s and his collection eventually numbered in excess of 400 decoys. Those interested in this collection would be well served by obtaining a copy of Copley’s catalog, which has numerous color photographs of Wheeler and his collecting activities over the years. The catalog also features an essay by Chelsie Olney, Copley’s editor, writer and cataloger, on the Wheelers, and extensive biographies of several of the carvers.
Among the most unusual carvings in the Wheeler collection was a mechanical flying brant by George McLellan. It was intricately constructed so that – when in use – the wings would flap in the wind. Only nine of these were made and this one earned $21,600. The collection of the Wheelers’ Pacific Coast decoys was topped by a hollow-carved standing Canada goose made by Jerry Mastin. It was intended to be used in harvested wheat fields. Setting an auction record for a West Coast decoy, it sold for $51,000 and is likely to be one of just six surviving examples. The collection of Pacific Coast decoys included several very folky examples, many of which did not bring a lot of money. A feeding brant made by Oregon carver Wesley Batterson earned $554.
Elmer Crowell carvings can usually be counted on to do well and this sale included more than 30 examples of his work. One of the most unusual of these was a carving of hanging greater yellowlegs. It was nearly 17 inches long and was made to hang upside down. It had applied raised wings, a curved tail and detailed wooden legs. Each wing showed detailed carving with scalloped edges, delineated feathers, and incised secondary feathers. Brian Cullity, in The Songless Aviary, The World of A.E. Crowell and Son (1992), referred to this carving as having “the best ‘folky’ look one could ask for in a Crowell.” It came from the collection of John S. du Mont and sold for $36,000.
A female belted kingfisher mantel carving with a yellow perch it had apparently just caught in its bill sold for $32,400. Signed and dated 1941, the bird was carved with a saw-tooth crest and the tail had incised feather details. Some of the Crowells had come from Cogswell Grant, one of the homes of Nina Fletcher Little and her husband Bertram. One of these was a circa 1915 life-size tern which realized $18,000. Terns were never considered a delicacy, but they were shot in great numbers because their colorful feathers fetched high prices from the millinery trade. The 1897 passage of a Massachusetts law prohibiting the sale of plumes was the first step in the conservation of birds in America. Crowell’s hunting decoys included a circa 1930 mallard drake with a slightly turned head; it achieved $9,840.
Collector interest in decorative carvings is strong and the sale offered examples by some of the most popular craftsmen, including Frank Finney, Mark McNair, Bruce Lepper, Alan King and others. Bird trees and other carvings by Frank Finney have recently been selling well above the $10,000 mark. A bird tree, 23 inches tall, with an owl and 14 crows – two of which were on the carved base – realized $22,140. Finney also created Santa Claus figures with waterfowl themes; one of them, from 1983, was in the sale. Standing 28 inches tall, it featured decoy collector and dealer Bud Ward as Santa Claus. The figure included a carved wooden placard inscribed “Bud Ward as Santa” and depicted him holding a Ward brother’s blue-winged teal, with other birds in the sack on his back, along with a shotgun and shells. It sold for $12,300. A miniature dove family, with two adult doves and two babies on a branch, 5 inches tall by Alan King, sold for $7,200.
The sale included several Nantucket decoys from the collection of O’Brien’s father, Stephen O’Brien Sr, who has been collecting since 1968. “Early on, I realized that I must specialize,” he said. “Nantucket’s early and unique decoy making history, along with my passion for the island, made it an ideal region to focus on.” Two lots tied for the top prices of the collection. An early, circa 1840, hollow-carved Folger family golden plover realized $16,800. The decoy showed a full breast and carved raised wings. The catalog speculated that early birds such as these may have influenced the later work of Elmer Crowell. Bringing the same price of $16,800 was a rig of seven golden plovers made around 1870 by a member of the Coffin family. It consisted of several variations of golden plovers, including both adult and juvenile birds, as would have occurred naturally. Over the years, most of these rigs have been broken up, so this was an unusual opportunity to acquire an original rig. Also included in the collection was a golden plover in an alert pose by a carver known simply as “Mr Webster.” Dating to about 1850, it sold for $14,400; it had been in O’Brien’s collection since 1975.
After the sale, Steve O’Brien commented, “this was an interesting sale. Some things that I thought would do really well, didn’t, and yet there were some record prices set, like the Mastin hollow-carved standing Canada goose. Buyers were selective this time, for whatever reason. The sporting art did well. I think that some birds by unknown, or lesser known carvers, slid under the radar. I’m thinking of the swimming merganser by an unknown maker. It was a wonderful example, realizing $42,000. I thought it should have brought more but it had never been on the market before so maybe that held buyers back a little. Our consignors are happy, so I think we did well.”
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house. For information, www.copleyart.com or 617-536-0030.
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