Published: September 25, 2007
Antique duck and goose decoys were sold September 20 for a record-setting $1.13 million each in a private sale brokered by Stephen O’Brien Jr Fine Arts. The decoys were made by renowned carver A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass.
These decoys are no strangers to the limelight: The duck decoy, a preening pintail drake, circa 1915, was last sold in 2003 at Christie’s for a then-record-setting price of $801,500. Following that sale, Christie’s now deputy chairman John Hayes, said, “The Crowell preening pintail is the most important bird in America. It is the best decoy by the best maker.” In 1986, the duck sold for $319,000 at a Richard Oliver auction in Kennebunk, Maine.
The sleeping Canada goose decoy, circa 1917, last sold in 2000 at Sotheby’s for a then-record-setting price of $684,500. Writing in the Antiques Roadshow newsletter Nancy Druckman, senior vice president of Sotheby’s folk art department, said, “In my view, this bird is the best of Crowell and the best that the field has to offer.” She noted that “The Holy Grail among decoys&⁷ould be the sleeping Canada goose.” Prior to the Sotheby’s sale in 2000, the goose decoy sold at a Skinner auction in 1981 for $48,000.
Decoy broker Steve O’Brien Jr said, “Dealers and collectors have been guessing for years at which decoy would be the first to reach the $1 million mark. They have to wonder no longer; there are two.”
According to O’Brien, “If we had had these birds in our summer Copley Fine Arts auction, our presale auction estimate would have been in the $1․1.5 million range for each. But, given today’s skyrocketing auction market, it wouldn’t have shocked me if each bird had gone for $2․3 million.”
O’Brien said, “Waterfowl decoys are a uniquely American art form that have moved to the forefront of the folk art market. Both buyers and sellers have recognized their potential and prices are beginning to climb. The Crowell pintail drake is one of the most iconic and famous decoys of all.”
The sale of the two million-dollar decoys was part of a larger private sale of 31 decoys brokered by Stephen O’Brien Jr Fine Arts for $7.5 million, in what O’Brien describes as the “largest private sale of decoys ever.”
Joe Engers, editor of Decoy Magazine , noted that O’Brien is one of the top dealers of decoys in the country. “He’s represented some of the highest profile birds on the market,” Engers said. “Without a doubt, the pintail drake is the most familiar decoy in the world.”
O’Brien said, “In their heyday at the turn of the century, hundreds of decoys were often used to attract waterfowl along the major migratory flyways. When federal law curtailed migratory bird hunting after World War I, decoys evolved into a finely carved and painted art form. Many of the huge flocks are now long gone, but their likenesses †carved and painted on wood †will live on forever.”
O’Brien said, “We’ve seen a tremendous increase in recent years of new collectors who have enjoyed decoy exhibits, attended auctions or witnessed the steady rise in decoy prices and want to start their own collections.”
A. Elmer Crowell (1862‱954), who created the two record-setting decoys, started off as a hunting camp manager, and carved his record-setting pintail duck and goose to impress his Boston-area patrons, John C. Phillips and Harry Long. In doing so, he became well known as arguably the finest decoy carver and painter of all time.
In 1914, a Boston Globe reporter interviewed Crowell and pronounced his work “the best decoys produced by hand in any workshop.” US postage stamps in 1974 and 1988 featured Crowell’s decoys.
For information, 617-536-0030 or www.americansportingart.com .
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