Published: February 18, 2003
When ‘Pass’ and ‘Unsold’ Were Never Uttered:
Story and photos by David S. Smith
NEW YORK CITY — Arguably the most successful of January’s Americana Week auctions was the Christie’s sale of the Russell Aitken Wildfowl Decoys collection, conducted in association with Guyette and Schmidt on January 18. In stark contrast to the majority of the other auctions conducted throughout the “week,” the words “pass” or “unsold” were never muttered. The auction went 100 percent sold with a world record price paid at auction being established and the 365 lots grossed an impressive $2,833,568.
Aitken lived during the “golden age of American Outdoorsmen” and was said to have been as focused in his worldwide stalk for game as “he was in collecting art.” He was regarded a as great conservationist, won more than 40 titles as a marksman and received numerous awards and prizes as an artist, working in ceramics and sculpture. Examples of Aitken’s art are included in numerous collections, including the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art, The Whitney, and the Cleveland Museum of Art.
Aitken, who eventually became an associate editor at Field and Stream, was the author of more than 300 articles in national sporting and natural history magazines, his first article having been published at the age of 12. “Aitken’s passion for art and natural history inspired his collection of wildfowl decoys,” stated Guyette and Schmidt in the catalog. “For him, decoys represented American sculpture, matching his lifelong interest in shooting with his appreciation for the elegance of the birds and the artistic accomplishment of the carvers.”
The highly anticipated auction got plenty of press in the weeks prior to the sale and momentum had built to a fevered pitch in the waning days, but in actuality the roots for this extremely healthy auction were fertilized in 2000 with the offering at Sotheby’s of the James McCleery decoy collection. While the McCleery sale was filled to the brim with quality decoys that had major collectors salivating, the Aitken collection was narrower at the top and broader at the bottom. Despite the fact that the final numbers realized between the two sales reveals a great disparity, the Aitken auction was friendlier and much more personable, ultimately allowing a greater number of people with different levels of interest and collecting experience to participate.
“McCleery helped set the pace for us; people didn’t know what to expect,” said auctioneer Gary Guyette of the Guyette and Schmidt decoy auction company. “That auction sort of woke people up and the momentum has carried through.”
Christie’s had certainly done their market strategizing for this sale; their plan was to maximize exposure in both the press and the gallery. Advertising was expanded to cover major sporting journals and all the top newspapers and magazines. Articles in the media appeared throughout the country. And closer to home, to view the prime selection of art and Americana offered in the six other sessions conducted throughout the week in Christie’s showrooms, one was waltzed right through the center of the decoy preview. Low and behold, center stage in the marble foyer was the star lot, the Elmer Crowell preening pintail drake, with its iconic beams shining out for all folk art, fine art and Americana collectors and tradesmen to see.
As Aitken compiled his collection of birds — old and contemporary, working or decorative — a distinct emphasis had obviously been placed on obtaining birds with great stylistic appeal. This appreciation of style, in conjunction with all the hype and marketing, brought out the crowds and Christie’s showroom hosted a standing-room-only crowd as auctioneer John Hays got the sale underway.
The first lot to be offered, a pair of mint condition decorative ringnecks by the Ward Brothers, Crisfield, Md., signed and dated by Lem Ward, 1964, sold at the high estimate of $14,300 to a telephone bidder. (All prices include the 19.5 percent buyer’s premium charged). The next lot offered, a Ward Brothers black duck decorative sold well above the $5/7,000 presale estimate, bringing $11,950.
Other Ward Brothers decorative lots included a pair of standing greenwing teal at $17,925, a pair of Gadwall, $16,730, and a brant that realized $10,755.
The first of the lots to take off was a Shang Wheeler sleeping black duck working bird that “had never been rigged for hunting” and was in excellent original paint. The lot, estimated at $15/20,000, opened for bidding at $10,000 and went back and forth between a telephone bidder and an absentee bidder with it going to the later at $35,850. A decorative ruddy duck by Wheeler, the only one known in a courting pose, sold between estimates at $16,730, while a rare snow goose that had originally been part of the Connecticut Audubon Society collection realized $23,900.
The crowd did not have to wait long for the highly anticipated Elmer Crowell carvings to come to the block as the first of the miniatures was offered roughly one-half-hour into the sale. The rare king eider miniature marked with the circular stamp sold for $3,585 to New Hampshire dealer Russ Goldberger. Other sought-after miniatures included a bluewing teal at $4,183, a Hudsonian curlew, $4,541, and a golden plover and black bellied plover that went for $5,975 to Boston dealer Stephen O’Brien, Jr.
A Crowell mallard drake working decoy with rectangular brand went out next at $3,107, a greenwing teal drake made $3,842, a mallard with the oval brand realized $9,560 and a three-quarter-size mallard decorative brought $2,868.
The next lot to be offered was one that had been the center point of conversation among virtually all decoy collectors since the sale was announced this past summer. Speculation had been brewing for months and it was generally felt that Aitken’s “outstanding preening pintail drake” would once again claim the spot as the top-priced decoy, a position that it had previously occupied for 11 years from 1986 to 1997.
“Crowell is certainly among the very best decoy carvers of this century,” stated the catalog, “and this pintail is arguably the finest piece he has ever created. It was made for Crowell’s friend and patron, Dr John C. Phillips of Beverly, Mass., for whom Crowell ran a gunning stand at the beginning of the century.”
The Crowell decoys in the Phillips rig are thought to be among Crowell’s highest caliber decoys, and this preening pintail is generally regarded as “the finest of that esteemed group. With its turned head, crossed-wing carving and superb paint, Dr Phillips may have decided to reserve it for the mantle.” The decoy, which had never rigged for hunting, was marked with the large oval brand and had the initials “J.C.P.” written in pencil on the underside.
As the lot was offered, the crowd became silent and auctioneer John Hays asked for an opening bid of $170,000. The lot advanced rapidly in $10,000 increments bouncing back and forth between some of the 16 active phone lines and Stephen O’Brien, Jr, who was seated in the rear of the room. The bid soon advanced to $20,000 increments, but never slowed until it hit the $680,000 mark with a bid coming from O’Brien. The phone was slow to react, but eventually placed a $700,000 bid; O’Brien responded at $720,000, which went unanswered and resulted in a world record price paid at auction established at $801,500.
Bidding on behalf of a client, O’Brien commented after the auction, “We were prepared to go over a million, if we had to. Crowell made this decoy for Dr Phillips to show off his carving abilities. It is one of the icons of the decoy world, arguably one of the top two or three decoys in existence.” O’Brien explained that the preening pintail is a unique decoy and that Crowell only executed a handful of preeners, including the ex-record holding goose, a goldeneye, widgeon and a canvasback.
What makes this decoy so important is that it was done during “the transition from his earlier working decoys of the teens into his later style,” said O’Brien. “Crowell was becoming more of an artisan. Everything came together with this decoy, the perfect timing of his carving style and his painting, combined with him making it for a special person.”
This is the second time the decoy has established a record price paid at auction as in 1986 Aitken purchased the decoy at a Maine auction for $319,000. The most recently eclipsed record holder was also for a Crowell decoy, a sleeping Canada goose, purchased by O’Brien at Sotheby’s in 2000.
Other top lots at Christie’s included a rare pair of Lothrop Holmes merganser decoys that were described by Gary Guyette as being among the oldest known decoys in existence by an acknowledged carver. “These decoys have few peers. They would unquestionably be the centerpiece of any collection,” stated Guyette and Schmidt in the catalog. Holmes was a ship’s carpenter by trade who carved ducks and shorebirds in the second half of the Nineteenth Century. While his shorebirds and decoys are highly sought after, “it is his mergansers that are recognized generally as the best of their type anywhere.” This rare pair of birds have been illustrated and written about in nine different books including Adele Earnest’s Folk Art in America, as well as her decoy book The Art of The Decoy: American Bird Carvings, William Mackey’s American Bird Decoys, and a Jean Lipman and Alice Winchester collaboration, The Flowering of American Folk Art in The Whitney Museum of American Art.
Bidding on the pair of circa 1860-1870 Holmes mergansers, estimated at $300/500,000, opened at $170,000 and progressed methodically to a selling price of $394,500, going to a buyer in the room.
Another Lothrop Holmes lot that did well was a black-bellied plover shorebird in excellent original paint. Estimated at $20/30,000, the rare shorebird, from the third-quarter of the Nineteenth Century, sold at $77,675.
A rare flying drake mallard wall plaque by Elmer Crowell did well at $59,750, a Crowell ruddy turnstone shorebird $59,750, and a Gus Wilson merganser realized $47,800. A Gus Wilson surf scoter with a carved mussel in its open bill went to Steve O’Brien at $38,240, and a John Blair hollow carved gadwall hen exceeded estimates at $35,850.
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