Published: September 4, 2007
Collectors, dealers and decoy enthusiasts packed up their bags and headed south out of Boston for the third stop on the summer decoy auction circuit, a sale presented on Cape Cod by Ted Harmon of Decoys Unlimited. The auction, taking place on Monday and Tuesday, July 30 and 31, featured close to 1,000 lots and grossed $1.5 million.
Included in the auction was the well-known and highly regarded collection of the late Harvey Pitt, along with a selection of decoys from the Carl Althens collection. Proceeds from the sale of the Althens birds were slated to be donated to Hemlock Hills Waterfowl Preserve in Ellicottville, N.Y.
The first session of the auction began with a selection of middle-line decoys, although there were a few treasures sprinkled among the offering. The first of the lots to take off on Monday afternoon was a Lothrop Holmes feeding yellowlegs shorebird in excellent original paint that attracted the attention of collectors. Termed by Harmon a “classic and very important Massachusetts shorebird,” the decoy had been found in a rig discovered in Maine in the early 1970s. Bidding on the lot was spirited, with it selling for $46,000.
A black-bellied plover by Long Island carver Levert Squire, ex-Mackey collection, was another of the lots sold on the first day of the sale, with it bringing $20,700, and a golden plover thought to have been carved by a member of Nantucket’s Folger family was hammered down at $9,775.
Tuesday’s session was greeted with a great deal of enthusiasm and it was not long before a selection of Elmer Crowell working decoys created some excitement. A rare merganser hen with a low head in a pulled back position, in overall excellent original paint, was among the first of the coveted birds to cross the block. Provenance listed the decoy as “purchased at a Bourne decoy auction in 1973” and the rare bird was marked with the early oval brand. Thought to have been made circa 1900, the decoy carried a presale estimate of $25/35,000, yet when the bidding had stopped, it realized $52,325, becoming the top lot of the auction.
Other working decoys by Crowell included a rare and early mallard drake in exceptional paint that sold for $31,050, a brant in nice old paint at $27,600, a swimming merganser drake made $24,315, and a pintail that went out over estimates at $18,400.
Crowell working shorebirds included a plump black-bellied plover gunning decoy in a resting position that hammered down at $17,825, and a rare Hudsonian curlew with minor surface crazing and paint loss that sold just below estimates at $18,400.
Shorebirds by other makers included a rare yellowlegs in a sleeping pose, circa 1890, by Revere, Mass., carver Melvin Gardner Lawrence. Harmon cataloged the graceful decoy as being in “excellent overall condition with a few minor rubs and dings.” With a provenance of the George Ross Starr collection, the decoy carried a presale estimate of $45/55,000, although it only garnered a final bid of $34,500.
A lesser yellowlegs by Forked River, N.J., carver Lou Barkelow, impressed “LB” on the body, was actively bid, with it selling at $29,900, and a rare red-breasted dowitcher with root head from the Althens collection sold for $7,705.
A selection of decorative carvings by Arnold Melbye, a hunter and naturalist from Bass River, Mass., did well. The first of the Melbyes to be offered was a life-size blue jay that sold to Cape dealer and collector Charles Adams for $7,762, and a pair of life-size goldfinches were also sold at $6,037.
A Charles Perdew mallard drake attracted a great deal of interest as it crossed the block. Cataloged as in “original paint” that had been finely blended by Perdew’s wife Edna, the decoy had been purchased by the consignor in 1980 from Connecticut decoy dealer Alan Haid. The lot opened at $10,000 and bounced back and forth in the room with two bidders shutting out numerous people on the telephone. Frank Schmidt, a principal in the Guyette and Schmidt auction team, was seated in the rear of the gallery and was quick to get in on the action. Schmidt ultimately claimed the lot at $19,550.
A rare raised wing canvasback drake by Charles Perdew was in near mint original condition, even retaining the original lead strip weight. The paint was cataloged as “outstanding with very fine detailed comb painting between the raised wings.” Catching the eye of several collectors, the decoy sold for $11,500.
A Joseph Lincoln self-bailing brant in “excellent bold Lincoln paint” was cataloged as the last one to be sold from “an early Nantucket gunning rig that was ordered directly from the carver.” Buyers in the crowd bid the lot to $19,550. A rare solid body brant by Lincoln from the rig of Ben Clark retained good original paint that exhibited high-point gunning wear. It sold at $14,950.
The collection of Carl Althens consisted of an assortment of Mason Factory decoys along with a selection of Virginia and Maryland decoys. The top lot from the collection was a classic Mason slope-breasted mallard drake in a lightly crazed original paint. The turned head decoy, from the Ohio hunting rig of D.B. Day, sold at $11,212.
Other items that did well included two Chauncey Wheeler half-bodied decoy wall mounts in flying form, with a goose selling at $27,600 and a canvasback bringing $21,850.
Two Ward decoys with poems written on the base sold above expectations. Harmon commented that he had been approached earlier in the year during his Chicago auction by a gentleman who is writing a book about the Ward Brothers and their decoys with inscribed poems. The gentleman requested that he be allowed to photograph the two examples for inclusion. Harmon surmised that the recent interest in the rare examples has stimulated the market, as evidenced by a canvasback hen and a bluebill hen both exceeding estimates, bringing $9,200 and $12,650, respectively.
Prices include the buyer’s premium charged. For information, 508-362-2766 or www.decoysunlimitedinc.net .
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