Published: July 26, 2022
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions
HINGHAM, MASS. – On July 14 and 15, Copley Fine Art Auctions put together a 676-lot sale with several marque decoys of impeccable provenance, some recently uncovered works by Nineteenth and Twentieth Century master carvers, including Elmer Crowell, Charles Perdew and the Ward Brothers. There was a wide selection of miniatures and decorative carvings, along with fish decoys and sporting art, which comprised about a third of the sale. Included were works by some of the best in the field, including Edmund Henry Osthaus, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Bob Kuhn, Ogden M. Pleissner, Frank W. Benson and others, providing numerous choices for buyers looking for “just that right painting.” There was also an assortment of accessories including powder tins, fishing reels and more.
There was no in-house bidding but three internet platforms were in use, with phone and absentee bids processed. Copley’s 306-page catalog included extensive descriptions and biographical information, often with anecdotes of “decoy lore” and background details of some of the paintings. The online listings include all the information from the printed catalog, plus numerous photographs of each lot. An unusual feature of Copley sales is that many lots are sold without printed estimates. These lots are sold without reserve and, as Colin McNair stated, “without a safety net.” One of these lots sold for $11,000.
The top lot of the day, realizing $228,000, was a circa 1850 hollow carved curlew decoy by an unknown Nantucket maker. Little is currently known about the identity of many Nantucket carvers. Stephen “Steve” O’Brien Jr, along with Chelsea Olney, with whom he co-authored a recent book on the work of Elmer Crowell, are working on a book that will provide more information on the Nantucket carvers and will change some of the current attributions. This decoy was large, 16 inches long, with a hollowed out, egg-shell-thin hull, and it was held together with small cut nails. The wings were raised and connected over the detailed tail. The paint was true to the species and in very good condition. The catalog noted that two birds by this maker are known that had been repainted by Elmer Crowell later in their lives and speculates that the work of this carver may have been an inspiration to Crowell. This decoy belonged to Ted and Judy Harmon. A few days prior to the sale, Ted Harmon said, “I’ve owned this bird for about 40 years. I got it in Ipswich, and it’s been on my mantel ever since. I really like it, but I felt it was time to pass it along – let someone else enjoy it.”
Perhaps something like this has been said before, but Elmer Crowell carvings claimed three of the six highest prices of the sale. Crowell produced miniature carvings of 183 different species. They were sold to his regular customers, summer visitors and schools and museums for identification purposes. Some were sold in sets of 25: shorebirds, ducks and songbirds. Shorebird sets may be the scarcest. A nearly complete set, 22 of 25 shorebirds, realized $90,000. Each was marked “A. E. Crowell Maker East Harwich Mass” in a rectangular stamp on the bottom. Included was the original typed list of the 25 birds comprising the shorebird set.
A “wing-up” greater yellowlegs mantel carving by Crowell reached $84,000. He is believed to have produced very few carvings of this type. The bill tip was open, and the bird was preening an individual feather of tin. The plumage on the two sides of the upraised wing were painted differently, and the tail feathers were carved and painted. Related examples have been published numerous times. The third Crowell finishing in the top six lots of the sale was a circa 1912 mantel carving of a woodcock, which sold for $72,000. Its dropped wings had carved primary feathers and true-to-life painting. This particular bird had not appeared previously in the marketplace, having been in the Eugene E. du Pont collection, which was acquired directly from Crowell.
Bird Decoys of North America by Robert Shaw, published in 2010, stated, “Stephen W. Ward (1895-1976) and his brother Lemuel Travis Ward (1896-1984) of Crisfield, Md., were by far the most prominent Chesapeake Bay carvers of the Twentieth Century and among the greatest and most influential bird carvers of all time.” Today’s marketplace seems to agree with this assessment.
Although there were numerous other carvers in the Chesapeake region, Ward Brothers works are the most sought-after by collectors and there were about 20 in the sale. Steve was the carver and Lem the painter. Selling for $36,000 was a circa 1936 pair of mallards. Apparently, the drake had never been hunted over as it retained original paper labels from the retailer. A preening Canada goose by the brothers earned $20,400. The brothers also made miniatures, which brought prices ranging from $2,400 for a hissing Canada goose to $1,020 for a pair of bluebills. The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury, Md.. features one of the world’s largest and finest public collections of decorative and antique decoys and was named in honor of the brothers.
Also bringing $72,000, as did the Crowell woodcock, was a large curlew decoy that spent most of its life in an apartment in New York’s Upper East Side. It was made by Charles Sumner Bunn (1865-1952), Shinnecock, N.Y., about 1900. This is only the third of the few curlews by this maker known to have come to auction. In 1971, William J. Mackey, whose decoy collection was one the very best, wrote, “These decoys have the feel of real birds. His knowledge and study of the live bird and his skill with a knife transferred the block of wood. His was a unique talent not given to any other decoy makers. Nothing finer has been found ever since.” The only problem with that quote is that Mackey thought the decoy had been made by Bill Bowman, and, based on his authority, several similar fine decoys have been attributed to Bowman. Further, at one time, these decoys were thought to have been made by Elmer Crowell. But recent research has established that the maker was Charles Sumner Bunn, a member of Long Island’s Shinnecock-Montauk Tribe.
As in other fields of art, research is changing attributions long thought to be correct. In October of last year, Kory Rogers, curator of the Shelburne Museum, home to one of the largest decoy collections in the United States, published his findings and those of Joe Jannsen and other researchers, correcting the previous attribution to Bowman. Rogers’s heavily illustrated “Mistaken Identities” is on the Shelburne website (https://shelburnemuseum.org/online-exhibitions/in-plain-sight). It’s a fascinating story. A few days before this auction, Rogers was asked about attributions in the sphere of decoy collecting. He said, “Many of the early collectors, like Joel Barber and Mackey, recognized the quality of a decoy but often had little factual information to go on about the maker. So sometimes they relied on local word-of mouth stories and perhaps even some wishful thinking. There’s been so much research done over the last 40-50 years on the decoys and the makers of particular regions of the country that much new information has come to light and we’re able to correct earlier misconceptions.” At least one other carving in the sale has also been reattributed. An exceptionally colorful wood duck drake, once thought to have been made by the Ward Brothers, is now believed to have been made by another Crisfield, Md., carver, Lloyd Aaron Sterling (1860-1925). It sold for $25,200. It had sold at an online auction late last year for about $10,000 less.
The sale included dozens of miniatures and decorative carvings. Prior to the sale, Steve O’Brien and Colin McNair, decoy specialist, both remarked that the market is “hot” now for these. They fit into almost any home, and some folks who have collected them for years are taking advantage of the strong current market. In addition to Crowell miniatures, the sale offered carvings by William Gibian, Mark McNair, Alan King and many others.
Copley’s sales usually include a wide selection of sporting paintings, managed by fine arts specialist Leah Tharpe. There were more than 180 works in this sale, including works by Edmund Henry Osthaus, Ogden Pleissner, Aiden Lassell Ripley, Arthur Tait, Frank Benson and others. Some of the highest prices in the sale were achieved by sporting paintings, and leading the group, at $102,000, was an 1890 painting of a litter of seven setter pups by Edmund Henry Osthaus (1858-1928). Osthaus was a hunter of game birds, a judge at field trials and a breeder of prize-winning field dogs. His paintings reflect his love of dogs. In addition, there were four more of his paintings in the sale, all of setters, with one depicting setters on point realizing $78,000. “Grouse Shooting,” a 1946 watercolor by Aiden Lassell Ripley (1896-1969) earned $60,000. This 1946 watercolor was part of a series of six scenes done for Field & Stream magazine titled “Gunning in America.” Arthur Fitzwilliam Tait (1819-1905) was one of the earliest sporting artists, and his 1878 work of pointers at work sold for $72,000. Many of his paintings were issued as lithographs by Currier and Ives.
Not all important paintings were of dogs. A painting signed D.B (Hill) and dated 1861, selling for $21,600, depicted two shorebirds in a field, with a hunter on a hill behind them. It showed that not all shore-bird hunting took place at the shoreline. The birds sometimes fed in fields where domestic animals had grazed, providing grasshoppers and other insects for the birds. Of a totally different subject matter, a painting by Bob Kuhn (1920-2007) depicted two lions at rest. It reached $57,000.
After the sale, O’Brien commented that the market was strong in each category. “It was interesting to see the level of interest some of the things brought. I’m thinking of items like the Frank Finney bird tree and the Stan Bogden reel. Collectors understand the rarity of items like these. The Hunter-Doherty wood duck hen was a very rare item and sold for more money in 1989 when Charlie Hunter acquired it. I thought the Crowell mallard with the du Pont family provenance was a very good buy for someone. And with a $3 million gross, it was obviously a strong sale for us.”
Prices given include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house. For information, 617-536-0030 or www.copleyart.com.
December 5, 2023
December 5, 2023
December 5, 2023
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