By Rick Russack
Catalog Photos Courtesy decoys unlimited
HYANNIS, MASS. — Ted Harmon’s summer decoy sale at the Cape Codder July 26–27 saw decoys by New England carvers perform well, with a Joe Lincoln old squaw hen leading the first day’s sales and a set of 25 miniatures by Elmer Crowell also doing well. The second day’s action was led by another old squaw drake, this time by Maine carver Oscar Bibber that fetched $23,000.
More than 900 lots were sold during the two days and the sale grossed approximately $1 million. The salesroom was full when the sale started, phone lines were in use and Internet bidding was available.
Harmon has been collecting decoys for more than 50 years, since he was 16. He told Antiques and The Arts Weekly that he found his first decoy on a dump pile and then started going to Richard Bourne auctions. He, along with many others, credit Bourne with being the major catalyst for bringing decoys into the collecting world. Bourne conducted the landmark sale of the William Mackey collection in 1973 and 1974 and many fine decoys trace their lineage to that collection and sale. Mackey’s collection included more than 2,000 decoys and the book he wrote in 1965, American Bird Decoys, is still considered by many to be the decoy collector’s bible. And sometimes things turn up that you wouldn’t expect to find in a decoy auction, such as a good landscape painting or a cigar store Indian.
The Lincoln hen was clearly the star of the sale and it sold for $74,750. Harmon’s catalog describes it as having come from an unused rig of decoys and says that the paint had “a brilliance as though it just came off the drying rack.” The decoy had been owned by Dr George Starr and was pictured and described in The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys where Jackson Parker wrote that “Lincoln was perhaps finest carver of his time.”
Other Lincoln birds also did well. A classic full-bodied Canada goose finished up at $3,162. This decoy showed two or three of the “signature” small plugs that Lincoln used to eliminate knots from his carvings. A merganser hen by Lincoln brought $6,900. It had an alert head and carved crest, with much of the original paint remaining. An early yellowlegs, circa 1910, with elaborate paint, sold for $1,725. Lincoln miniatures are popular and the sale included a few. His miniature hissing Canada goose earned $4,600.
The strong interest in Elmer Crowell carvings that was apparent in the week’s other two decoy auctions, was also very much in evidence here. A life-size black-bellied plover with spring plumage made $17,250, and a life-size least sandpiper with a script signature fetched $11,500. A life-size robin brought $10,925. During Crowell’s lifetime, when asked about his favorite birds, he always mentioned robins. Crowell often sold his miniatures in sets of 25.
This sale had a set of 25 miniature ducks, consigned by the family that had purchased them directly from Crowell. Each was numbered 1-25 on the base to match the accompanying order form. There were some imperfections, and the ducks had been played with by children and grandchildren, which didn’t seem to faze bidders as the final price of the set was $28,750. An exceptional flying curlew miniature brought $4,025 in spite of a replaced bill and minor touch-ups. It was signed on the back of one of the wings. A rare miniature pair of Canada geese, a double mount, with one goose standing on sentry duty and the other was in a nesting pose, both on a painted rock-like base, went out at $8,912. A life-size bobwhite quail, on a burl base, had carved details on the beak, crest and tail. It made $20,700.
The sale had dozens of miniatures by other carvers, some seemingly more popular with bidders than others. Birds in unusual poses did well. A miniature preening yellowlegs by Eddie Wozny exceeded estimate to achieve $805. There were several other miniatures by the same carver and most sold within estimates. A green-winged teal by Bob Clifford made $517. There were two miniatures by Seabrook, N.H., carver George Boyd. A hissing Canada goose ended up at $3,450, and a colorful puffin earned $5,175. There were plenty of inexpensive miniatures. A flying mallard by James Ahearn of Rhode Island ended up at $175, while a mallard drake by Frank Adams earned $373.
Early on the second day of the sale, a full-size dowitcher by popular Long Island carver William Bowman earned $20,125. It had deeply carved wings, a dropped tail and realistic head carving. Immediately following the Bowman bird was an outstanding Cape Cod decoy made by the Chipman brothers of Sandwich. It was a full-bodied Sanderling, made of two pieces of wood, horizontally laminated and hollowed out to an almost eggshell thinness. It had an exceptional painted plumage and two blue glass eyes. The eyes are believed to be Sandwich glass, since both brothers worked at the Sandwich factory. The bird achieved $51,750 and was the only Chipman brothers decoy in the sale.
Ira Hudson is a well-known carver who worked in Chincoteague, Va. A swimming Canada goose with a curved, “hissing” neck, had a carved bill, painted tack eyes and notched tail feathers. Harmon described the paint as “almost beyond comparison,” and it remained in fine condition. It brought $40,250. A pintail drake by the same carver made $13,800. It was a round-bodied bird with a long, exaggerated tail, and the detailed original paint was still in fine condition.
Factory-made decoys were popular. A pair of Mason standard grade pintails fetched $4,025 against an estimate of $1,800. A Mason premier grade Mallard in very fine original paint sold for $5,750, and a pair of Hays factory buffleheads with restoration went out at $1,495. A Dodge factory Canada goose with a long neck in a sentry pose finished at $4,887.
After the sale, Harmon said, “We put together a blockbuster of a sale… it was a great time to be a buyer. Overall it was a good sale for us, but there were too many birds being offered in a marathon five-day period.”
All prices reported include the buyer’s premium.
For additional information, www.decoysunlimitedinc.net or 508-362-2766.