Published: December 1, 2020
Review by Rick Russack, Photos Courtesy Guyette & Deeter
ST MICHAELS, MD. – The market for quality decoys is hot right now and Guyette and Deeter’s November 20-21 sale clearly demonstrated that fact. The sale grossed $3.5 million, with the top-priced decoy being Elmer Crowell’s feeding golden plover, which sold for $108,000. Outstanding examples by other master carvers, including Ira Hudson, Nathan Cobb, Lloyd Sterling and Oscar Peterson did well, with 99 lots selling over $10,000. More than ten new auction records were set for some carvers.
The well-cataloged sale had something for everyone in all price ranges with decoys that had originated from all the major flyways and regions. The catalog descriptions were thorough, often with additional background material on the specific decoy being offered. There were numerous informative biographical descriptions of carvers, sometimes with vintage photographs, biographies of the collectors whose decoys are being offered, provenance of the particular bird when known, and references to the specific decoys in published works on the carver, the region, or the flyway.
The Guyette & Deeter catalogs are reference books in themselves. Each listing also includes a reliable, detailed statement of condition, and importantly, each decoy is fully guaranteed to be as described. Online listings include several photographs. A buyer knows exactly what to expect when they unpack their purchase. The company’s three live auctions this year grossed $10.5 million.
Many of the fine decoys in this sale came from the collection of Jim and Pat Doherty, both of whom have passed away. From the catalog, “Jim Doherty was known as a passionate collector who assembled one of the finest collections of waterfowl decoys. Over nearly four decades, Jim and Pat built a collection considered by many to be one of the finest in the country but without a doubt, their New Jersey decoys were among the best. The collection was well rounded and covered most of the major regions with excellent examples by important carvers.
“His in-depth knowledge of decoys grew from a commitment to study the available literature, having frequent and serious discussions with other collectors, attending decoy shows and auctions, and welcoming other collectors into his home. In 2011 Jim completed and published the definitive book on New Jersey decoys, Classic New Jersey Decoys, the cornerstone for anyone interested in learning about carvers of New Jersey.”
Three of the 13 top-priced birds were by Elmer Crowell, the prolific Cape Cod carver. His works are among the most sought-after decoys, be they miniatures, decoratives or working decoys. Over his long career, he developed numerous loyal clients, many quite wealthy, and he sometimes produced birds especially for these patrons. Those special birds are few and far between, and when they appear on the market today, they bring special prices.
The circa 1905 feeding golden plover in fall plumage with carved wings and split tail was one of those special carvings. Perhaps only five exist and this one sold for $108,000. It had everything that advanced collectors look for: carved primary wing feathers, a split tail, and it was in a desirable, rare, feeding position. The catalog included a separate discussion of the wing carving seen on this bird and a close-up photo of the carving. “The incised wing tips on these carvings represent Crowell at his zenith. He may have first experimented with carved wing tips as early as 1895 but it is believed that he discontinued this time-consuming carving by 1915.”
The biography in the catalog informs us that Crowell’s father bought him his first shotgun when he was 12 years old. He started carving about two years later and at that time, the demand for wild game, especially ducks, was strong, and there was money to be made. He shipped birds to the Boston market. Later when he married, he became a cranberry grower, along with others on the Cape, but always continued hunting and carving. He also acted as a “head gunner” for many of his wealthy clients, some of whom became lifelong friends. By the 1920s, times were changing and hunting migratory game birds was restricted. As the demand for working decoys decreased, Crowell began to take advantage of the growing tourist traffic on the Cape and started producing decorative carvings and the miniatures for which he has become so well-known.
Close to 40 additional examples of Crowell’s work were included in this sale. A large Canada goose, 22½ inches long, sold for $42,000. A large black bellied plover with a split tail sold for $39,000. The catalog description of this decoy includes a short biography, with vintage photographs, of Parker Whittemore, for whom Crowell carved the bird. Dated 1940, a lovely preening yellowlegs shore bird, with one wing lifted, sold for $25,200, and there were many more.
Two of the four highest priced decoys in the sale were made by Ira Hudson (1873-1949), Chincoteague, Va. Hudson’s biography in the catalog provides some insight to the type of man who carved decoys. “He clammed, fished, oystered and raised his own chickens. He built boats, took on carpentry projects and carved decoys.” In other words, he did what he had to do to support his family in a rural part of Virginia. All his work was done by hand until 1940 because he did not have any electricity to run power tools. Prior to the sale, Jon Deeter said, “I think two of the Hudson decoys we have in this sale may be the best he ever made.” One of those was a merganser hen, done in the first quarter of the Twentieth Century, which realized $66,000. It had a carved crest, a fluted tail, fine paint and a partially inlet neck. The other was the first lot offered in the two-day auction. It was a hollow carved black duck with relief carved wing tips, an exaggerated turned head at a 35 degree angle and with the tail was also carved at an angle. It earned $54,000.
As mentioned above, 11 decoys achieved new auction records. One of those record setting decoys was a pintail drake carved by Lloyd Sterling, Crisfield, Md. It was almost 20 inches long with a turned head and very well painted feathers. It was pictured in Call To The Sky, had previously been in the collection of James McCleery (one of the all-time best collections in this country) and had been discussed in Decoys of the Mid Atlantic Region. With that quality and provenance, it realized $72,000. Achieving the highest price ever for a fish decoy, $42,000, was Oscar Peterson’s oversized pike. It was 15 inches long, had glass eyes, and carved detailing on the underside of the gills. After the sale, Jon Deeter commented on the strength of the market for fish decoys, especially those from Minnesota, although Peterson was a Michigan carver. Oddly, also establishing a new auction record was a Canada goose that had been carved by James Best, of Kitty Hawk, N.C. We say oddly because the decoy had been repainted as a swan many years ago. It had a great surface, with much of the white paint worn off, and sold for $30,000.
Another swan decoy, but one that had started out life as a swan, was a “body booting” swan by Madison Mitchell of Havre de Grace, Md., which brought $10,200. “Body booting” is a term that refers to a style of hunting in which the hunter wears long wading boots and gets out into the water behind the decoys. A high head canvasback hen by Charles Barnard set a new record when it brought $27,000. Not only decoys set records. A carved wooden fish creel, signed by Maine carver Emile Robichaud, earned $2,460. It had leather fish form hinges, carved leaping brook trout and drawings of pine cones on the top. This list could easily continue.
The sale included more than just decoys. Sporting art included a large oil on canvas painting of a family of setters with four puppies and the mother. It was painted by Edmund Osthaus (1858-1928) who was not only a painter but who owned prize-winning field dogs. This painting ended up at $30,000. Many of his paintings appeared as illustrations in magazines such as The Saturday Evening Post and Colliers. There were numerous duck calls, turkey box calls and related items, such as vintage boat motors. There was also a 10-inch-wide swing-handle Nantucket basket, possibly made by Mitchell Ray, which sold for $4,560, as well as game boards, a barber pole, painted bowls, etc.
A few days before the sale, Jon Deeter said, “We’re expecting a strong sale. We have birds from the Doherty collection and other major collectors. These collections were put together years ago and they include fine examples from each of the major flyways. We’ve always advised that collectors not limit their collections to only regional birds. Good examples from different regions, I think, really increases the interest of a collection. Most of the major early collectors did that. I think a couple of the birds we have are among the very best examples of a carver’s work such as the Ira Hudson hollow carved black duck. That may be the best he ever made. Same goes for the Joe Lincoln immature white wing scoter drake. The large glass-eyed fish by Peterson is outstanding and so rare. That list could go on. We’re seeing a definite increase in the number of new collectors and we’re also seeing increased activity from some of our longtime collectors.”
As they did for their last sale during the Covid-19 restrictions, with live previews not feasible, both Jon Deeter and Gary Guyette took decoys directly to clients who expressed an interest in seeing particular decoys “hands on.” They traveled to several different areas, sometimes visiting a collector’s home to show the decoys they were interested in. After the sale, Deeter said, “obviously we’re delighted with the sale. The $3.5 million gross is satisfying, as is the fact that only two items were passed and that we set new world records for some of the birds. Again, we had numerous new bidders and we’ve never had a sale where nearly a hundred items brought more than $10,000. I think we’re seeing a positive impact of the Covid restrictions in regards to collecting. People are doing less traveling and maybe living a somewhat simpler life. More time to indulge interests, be it decoy collecting or whatever. The number of new buyers we’re seeing attests to that. It’s been a good year for us and 2021 should be also. We already have some well-known collections ready for next year.”
For additional information, www.guyetteanddeeter.com or 410-745-0458.
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