Published: August 13, 2019
Review and Onsite Photos by Rick Russack, Additional Photos Courtesy Guyette and Deeter
PORTSMOUTH, N.H. – Gary Guyette and Jon Deeter’s July 23-24 sale, with nearly 500 lots, was expected to be strong and it was. It was the first of three decoy auctions that week. It also included a 50-table dealer show that ran throughout the sale as well as during the preview, the day before the auction. The total for the sale was $2,465,239 with two decoys each bringing well over $100,000 and dozens of decoys bringing more than $10,000 each. The top lot, realizing $265,500 was a pintail drake by Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Mass. The 500 lots included duck and shorebird decoys, decorative carvings and miniatures, sporting art, fish decoys and much more. Several lots of folk art included a large Bellamy spread-wing eagle with a “Don’t Give Up The Ship” banner, weathervanes and a Samuel Robb cigar store Indian. The decoy portion of the sale grossed $2,110,000. As always, the auctioneer was Jim Julia, who runs a fast-paced, entertaining auction, telling several “downeast tales” as the sale progressed. Having retired, Julia only calls the Guyette and Deeter sales and on the second day of the sale celebrated his 73rd birthday with the crowd singing “Happy Birthday.”
The 285-page catalog included extensive, often multipage, descriptions of many of the offerings, with biographies of many carvers and several of the consignors. Multiple photographs, including vintage photos, were included. Provenance was listed for many of the decoys, along with references to literature discussing or picturing the item in question, with a list of the exhibitions in which the decoy appeared. Detailed condition statements were noted for each lot. Unlike most auctioneers, all items are fully guaranteed to be as described, with money to be refunded if the description is not accurate. Guyette and Deeter are available throughout the preview to answer questions from prospective bidders. Jeff Pressman, a long-time folk art collector who has recently become interested in decoys, was particularly complimentary about the assistance and education he has received from Jon Deeter.
Bringing $265,500, the highest price of the sale, was a pintail drake by Elmer Crowell. It was in original paint, signed by the maker and had detailed, carved crossed wing tips and an extended tail sprig. The decoy has been written about extensively and pictured in several books and articles on the subject. Crowell had several wealthy clients, businessmen of the period, who were avid hunters and collectors of his work. This decoy was once owned by Stanley W. Smith of Boston and Orleans on Cape Cod, who had Crowell produce custom decoys with additional carving details and paint; it is likely that he acquired this decoy directly from Crowell. Pintail ducks are uncommon on Cape Cod, so few decoys were produced for them and the catalog states that only four or five early Crowell pintails are known.
It may be unfair to award second place for highest price of the sale to two decoys that went to the same Pennsylvania collector for $236,000. Duck decoys were often used in “rigs,” attached to one another by ropes to give a more natural appearance to the decoys when floating, thereby encouraging ducks flying overhead to come in closer. One rig had been used on the Grand Kankakee Marsh in Indiana. The marsh covered a huge area and was hunted by the Prince of Wales and Presidents Harrison and Cleveland. A famous rig used on these marshes was owned by Herman B. Trinosky; it had been stored away for years until being rediscovered in 1967. Included in this sale were two spectacular “high neck” pintail decoys from this rig: a drake and a hen. Both birds had been given by Trinosky to the family that helped him clean out his barn. Before the sale, Julia, along with several others, marveled at how theses decoys had been made and how they had survived the rigors of hunting. They were offered separately, with the drake selling for $153,400 and the hen selling for $82,600. The carver has not been positively identified but the catalog attributes them both to Herman Trinosky and stated that only three of the high neck drakes are known. While decoys, in general, are certainly folk art, these two birds were exceptional, with original surfaces, especially on the drake, which any folk art collector would delight in owning. Decoys are said by many to be the earliest examples of American folk art, having been used by Native Americans for centuries.
Well-known folk art dealer and author Adele Earnest was an early collector of decoys, and one of the birds she had owned was included in this sale. It was a swan decoy, made on Hooper’s Island, Md., which she “rescued.” In her 1965 book, The Art of The Decoy, she recounts this story: She was driving in Maryland and noticed a large bonfire, being fed by a nearby farmer. She stopped to see what was happening and saw that the bonfire was burning a quantity of swan decoys. “I shrieked like a Valkyrie – and acted like one – rushed at the fire, seized one swan by its long white neck, threw it on the ground, and beat out the flames. The farmer, who was cleaning out an old barn, was transfixed and eventually accepted $5 for the decoy.” She later published Bonfire of the Swans and said, “the bird, although charred on the bottom, has a crusty surface that only years of use and exposure to the elements can produce.” The swan that she rescued, with the charring obvious, and the crusty surface, sold for $47,200.
Decoy collectors recognize, and are willing to pay for, exceptional examples of the work of well-regarded makers. The sale included more than three dozen works by Elmer Crowell, including a sleeping goldeneye drake by him in original paint that brought $4,130. Crowell miniatures ranged in price from $53,100 for an exceptional life-size blue jay to $944 for a canvasback drake. Several factors enter into decoy valuations, including the realization that some makers made very few decoys of a particular species, some were made to special order with details not found on regular production birds, some were in unusual poses, and, of course, condition: are there repairs? Has it been repainted?
In total, this sale offered decoys by more than 150 carvers, made and used in various parts of the United States. More than two dozen examples by the Ward Brothers of Crisfield, Md., included a circa 1934 pinchbreast pintail hen, which sold for $17,700 and a pair of canvasbacks that sold for $1,062. There were seven examples by George Boyd of Seabrook, N.H., including a swimming Canada goose with finely painted feathers, which sold post-sale. Decorative carvings included six lots by William Gibian of Onancock, Va.; one of which, a pair of sickle billed curlews, sold for $2,124. Seven carvings by Ira Hudson, Chincoteague, Va., included a rare 41-inch-long swordfish that earned $6,195, and ten made by the Mason Decoy Factory included a rare, circa 1895 ruddy turnstone with a wooden bill, which went for $10,030. This list could go on and on.
Folk art other than decoys did well. Although it wasn’t the highest priced item in the sale, a surprise was a 36-inch Bellamy eagle plaque with a “Don’t Give Up The Ship” banner held in its beak. It sold far over the $22,500 high estimate, finishing at $126,260. It took more time to sell than any other lot, finally coming down to a contest between two phone bidders, and with increments of $1,000, it took four or five minutes to reach its final price. Few Bellamy eagles carry the banner in their beak, and this treatment is considered rare and undoubtedly contributed to the price.
Additional folk art of other forms included a weathered cigar store Indian maiden, possibly made by Samuel Robb, which realized $30,680. The figure held cigars in one outstretched hand and a brick of tobacco in the other. It was illustrated in the Index of American Design. Careful examination of the figure as illustrated in the 1940s publication clearly showed the areas that had been touched up.
A 34-inch running deer, or leaping stag weathervane, with original surface, attributed to J.W. Fiske, earned $23,600, and a sheet iron rooster weathervane on a hand forged rod went to a phone bidder for $6,068. A bargain in the folk art department may have been a unique, colorful game board made by Frank Finney of Cape Charles, Va. Each corner had a spinning counter with a bone replica of a rifle, the board itself was decorated with upland game birds, carved figures with dogs’ heads were used to move around the snake-like game and it had a well-aged surface. It sold for just $1,180.
A few days after the sale, Jon Deeter said, “There were a few surprises. Probably the biggest surprise was the Bellamy eagle finishing over $100,000. Yes, it was a rare one, but it’s been years, I think, since that kind of number was reached by one of those. The Crowell blue jay was exceptional. That was Crowell at his best and the other Crowell miniatures did well. Anytime we hit the kind of gross we did in this sale, we’re pleased.”
Gary Guyette has been in the decoy business since 1974 and began selling decoys at auction in 1984, in partnership with Jim Julia. Since 2011, the firm of Guyette and Deeter has been conducting four live auctions annually, along with weekly online-only sales. They go out of their way to make this auction a social event. A free, catered preview party the evening before the sale was attended by about 250 people. A free buffet-style lunch was provided both days of the sale with choices such as lobster bisque and strawberry shortcake. The 50-table dealer show is not intended to be a money maker for the firm but, as Gary Guyette said, “we think of it as just another way to give more people more reasons to attend the auction.”
Prices cited include buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
For additional information, www.guyetteanddeeter.com or 410-745-0485, 410-610-1768.
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