Published: June 9, 2020
Review by W.A. Demers, Photos Courtesy of Guyette & Deeter
ST MICHAELS, MD. – A hollow carved swan by Charles Birch (1867-1956), Willis Wharf, Va., led the parade of decoys offered by Guyette & Deeter on May 29 and 30. With a raised neck seat, tack eyes and inserted hardwood bill that was splined through to the back of the head, the 24-inch-long and 19-inch-high bird was bid to $132,000. It was deaccessioned from the Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore, Md. Birch swan decoys scarcely come to auction, and this example was “more sculptural, having a round bottom and a thinly carved neck and head,” according to the firm’s co-principal Jon Deeter. “The fact that it hadn’t been used made it the best condition.” It was won by a Pennsylvania collector.
Born in Maryland and raised on Chincoteague, Birch moved south to Willis Wharf, in Northampton County at age 39 where he was a boat builder, waterman and decoy carver.
The auction was a live-streamed sale. Due to COVID-19 gathering restrictions that were in place, the firm offered several alternative methods for bidding, including by phone, absentee or online, and online bidding fees were waived.
The sale totaled $2,997,183 for 572 lots and rose to more than $3 million with after-auction sales. There were 253 registered phone and absentee bidders (216 phone and 37 absentee), 160 winning online bidders, with some 1,399 registered on the Invaluable platform, 380 registered on Bidsquare and an undetermined number shopping via LiveAuctioneers.
The Birch swan was just one of the lots offered in this sale from the decoy collection of late collector Dr Lloyd T. Griffith. The collection will be further sold over the course of Guyette & Deeter’s August auctions.
“Dr Lloyd,” as Griffith was known, operated the Griffith Clinic near Mount Holly, Va., for 52 years. He began collecting in the 1970s. His acquisitiveness became somewhat legendary. Richard Bourne of Bourne Auctions would say from his auction podium, “The doctor who owns half of Virginia just bought another decoy!” He was always a presence bidding against noted collectors of the day, James McCleery, Donal O’Brien and George and Hope Wicks, among others, at the William J. Mackey Jr auctions and throughout the decades that followed.
Guyette & Deeter did considerable business with Griffith over the years – both buying and selling – and he became good friends with co-owner Gary Guyette. Though Lloyd was a serious buyer for more than 50 years, his activity spiked in 2000 at the McCleery auction and continued through 2007. “He was one of the major forces driving the decoy auction market,” said Guyette.
Deeter said the firm had been working with Griffith’s widow for some time, waiting for the right time to bring her late husband’s collection to market.
A highlight from the Griffith collection made a notable impression in the first session of the two-day sale when a running robin snipe by Nathan Cobb Jr (1825-1905), Cobb Island, Va., sprinted to $90,000, just shy of its estimate. Carved in the third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, the 10Ã½-inch-long bird had shoe button eyes and carved raised “V” wingtips. The Masonic “A” carved behind the stick hole referenced Nathan’s brother Arthur Cobb, in whose rig the decoy was hunted. It had formerly been in the McCleery collection.
In no way an auction “sleeper,” an incredibly executed working mallard drake in a tucked head resting pose by Ferdinand Homme, Stoughton, Wis., circa 1930, also crossed the block in session one. Considered one of the finest working decoys ever made in the state of Wisconsin, the carving settled in at $81,000. Catalog notes described its exaggerated bending of the head in a rotated resting position, “anatomically more accurate than any working decoy we have ever seen”
Additional items of interest in the sale included rare Mason decoys – the only known Mason shovelers and one of three premier grade oldsquaws. An oldsquaw drake, Mason Decoy Factory, Detroit, Mich., circa 1900, featured a slightly uplifted head. It was one of only two known from this rig, and one of only three premier oldsquaws to have surfaced. Measuring 16 inches in length, it was bid to $78,000.
Fetching $64,800 and from the Griffith collection, a hollow carved teal by A.B. Vance, Philadelphia, third quarter of the Nineteenth Century, was just under 13 inches long. The body halves were joined by four small wooden dowels.
Going out at $57,000 was a rigmate pair of mallards carved by Harvey Stevens, Weedsport, N.Y. Each was branded “HA Stevens maker Weedsport, New York Standard Decoys.” The drake sported an unusual inset tail feather curl and strong feather combing on his back. The hen’s back was feather-loop painted, including loop figurals at edges of each speculum.
The two-session sale opened with a rigmate pair of shovelers from Mason Decoy Factory, circa 1900. The rarest pair of Mason decoys in existence, the pair had been rigged for hunting, but perhaps never used. Each 15 inches long, the pair brought $55,200.
Two other birds from the Griffith collection were among the sale’s top ten lots, both by Nathan Cobb. A hollow carved black duck with inlet head in a nestled pose, raised “V” wingtip carving and shoe button eyes, made $52,800, and a rare plover in fall plumage, shoe button eyes and raised “V” wingtip carving, 10Ã½ inches long, commanded $42,000. Illustrated in American Bird Decoys by William J. Mackey Jr, it had a Mackey collection stamp on its underside.
Of course, Guyette & Deeter auctions are more than just premier decoys and bird carvings. Paintings offered included an oil on canvas by Edmund Osthaus (1858-1928) that had been consigned by a family that purchased it directly from the artist. Depicting dogs in the forest, 22 by 26 inches and housed in its original frame, it went out at $48,000. Written on back of cardboard backing was “Marshalls Art Shoppe, 110 Oak Hill Ave, Youngstown, Ohio.”
The Griffith collection contributed an 18-by-28-inch watercolor of a partridge hunter in a farm field by Ogden Pleissner that sold for $24,000. Signed by the artist it came with a letter from Pleissner to a man who purchased it in 1967 from Crossroads of Sport, “Was painted about 10 years ago. Old stone wall is just in back of my place in Vermont and along it is rather good cover.”
Prices reported include the buyer’s premium as stated by the auction house.
The next sale is scheduled for August 19-20, “and we’re hoping for Portsmouth, N.H.,” said Deeter, who added that decoy collecting is a social endeavor and that while the firm has been able to be successful in spite of the coronavirus pandemic and resulting shutdowns of large gatherings, “we don’t want it to stay this way. Decoys are like comfort food, and have a more social collecting network. Folks like to look at the catalog, call their friends and gather at the auctions. That said, our guaranteed condition reports mean that people can bid with confidence whether in person or online and know that we stand behind the item.”
Guyette & Deeter is at 24718 Beverly Road. For information, www.guyetteanddeeter.com or 410-745-0485.
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