Published: August 13, 2019
By Rick Russack
Between July 23 and July 26, three decoy and sporting art auctions took place in New England; two in Plymouth, Mass., and one in Portsmouth, N.H. More than 1,300 working decoys, miniatures and decorative carvings were offered for sale. One might wonder…can the market support three major sales in four days? Yes, and few failed to sell. Are there enough quality decoys to keep the hundreds of buyers interested? The obvious answer is, again, yes. In addition to the decoys, hundreds of thousands of dollars were spent on sporting art and folk art. Decoys alone grossed more than $5,260,000. (In total, the three sales grossed more than $6 million.) Six decoys sold over $100,000, with five of those made by Elmer Crowell. Dozens of decoys sold for more than $10,000. For the three sales, the combined high estimates just for decoys was $7,060,000. The combined low estimate was $4,961,000. In all, few lots were passed and some of those have sold after the sales. Internet bidders were active and bought more than 300 of the lots.
These statistics are based upon preliminary reports from the three companies which are (in order of the dates of the sales) Guyette & Deeter, Steve O’Brien Jr’s Copley Fine Art Auctions, and Ted and Judy Harmon’s Decoys Unlimited. All have been around for decades. The catalogs for the three sales were impressive, with more than 750 pages collectively and weighing eight pounds. The week could almost be called Elmer Crowell week, as more than 150 of works by the Cape Cod carver were offered. Almost all drew strong bidding and strong prices, including the highest prices of the three auctions. Honors for top price would go to three Elmer Crowell decoys, known as the “Dust Jacket Plovers” that were offered individually, but which collectively sold for $1,114,000 with two going to one buyer. With the exception of decoys made by the Mason factory, Crowell’s decoys are collected by more people than any others.
A new book by Steve O’Brien Jr and co-author Chelsie Olney, Elmer Crowell, Father of American Bird Carving, was available for the first time.
A word in general about the quality of the catalogs. Each catalog included not only details about the decoy being offered, but also its provenance, the literature that discussed the bird, or in some cases pictured it. The exhibition history, where appropriate was included and extensive, often multipage, biographies of the carvers were also included. There were also details concerning the consignors who had put together the impressive collections. And, of course, detailed statements of condition. Some auction houses are cutting back on printed catalogs, but these catalogs go against that trend.
Attendance at the auctions was up from last year. Many couples attended together, apparently enjoying a few days in New England. Obviously, collectors bid against one another, but most seem to have known each other and their spouses for years, so these few days provide a way for old friends to keep in touch.
The world of decoys has been well researched for more than half a century, and in the 1930s, Joel Barber published one of the seminal works in the field, Wild Fowl Decoys. His collection is at the Shelburne Museum in Shelburne, Vt. Different parts of the country have different wild fowl, and so different decoys, and each of these variations has been collected, researched as to makers and variations, and dozens of books and articles have been published. Often, makers in the same parts of the United States had their own style of carving or painting decoys, and these variations have also been well researched, also with books and articles written. In addition, much of the “lore” of collecting has been documented and there are dozens of “stories” told about early collectors and makers. Many of these stories are included in the auction catalogs and some have been included in our reviews of the individual auctions.
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