Waterfowl decoys rank as one of the many popular collectibles of the era. It has been suggested there are only three forms of folk art that originated in North America—decoys, quilts and jazz.
The early native American Indians started and developed the craft. European settlers, as the Indians before them, adopted the practice as one of necessity in the search for food. Later, many 20th-century carvers turned the carving of decoys into an art form.
As an example of the state of the art, a preening pintail drake made in 1915 by master carver Elmer Crowell of the New England area sold at auction recently for more than $800,000; it last sold in 1986 for $319,000. While carvings by Crowell usually set price records, there are many other well-known carvers of the 20th century whose works are collectors' prizes.
Obviously, decoys come in many forms and ranges of value, from those trading in the hundreds to the thousands of dollars. The most common forms of decoys are of geese (normally the species known as the Canada goose)and ducks of many species (including the black duck, mallard, merganser, blue-winged, green-winged and cinnamon teal, pintail, black brant, canvasback, bufflehead and the wood duck to mention a few). Also, forms of long-legged shore birds were carved and used to attract flying waterfowl.
There are four defined waterfowl flyways in the United States: the Pacific, the Central, the Mississippi and the Atlantic. Each area has influenced early and subsequent carvers. Depending on terrain and water, carvers have used many materials in their craft to cope with the depth of water, the current, tides, marshes, winds and climate. Early decoys were made of solid woods, hollowed woods, cork and framed canvas forms. Again, to conform to the elements, some are weighted and carved either with full rounded bodies or flat bases.
What should one look for in the world of decoys? It is pretty much in the eyes of the collector. As mentioned, decoys come in many forms. Some want early carvings. Others seek the works of well-known national or regional carvers, while still others might consider working decoys, particularly those showing evidence of having been “shot over,” as more desirable. This latter status may be apparent from exterior markings or the evidence of lead discovered by x-ray. Of course, condition is always a consideration; original paint, even if worn, is also important.
Experienced carvers of decorative decoys are such artisans that it is difficult to visually, and without touching, determine whether feathers are attached or carved as part of the bird. Exquisite decorative birds are usually available or may be custom ordered at water fowl events or shows. Costs can reach the $20,000 to $25,000 range.
Many museums display collections of waterfowl decoys and there are several small museums in North America that display nothing but decoys and related paraphernalia. One of the latter is the Havre de Grace Decoy Museum in Maryland where well-known upper Chesapeake Bay carvers Madison Mitchell, Charlie Joiner and Charles Bryant are featured.
John V. Lanterman, FASA, is a Fellow of the American Society of Appraisers. He is accredited in antiques and decorative arts and residential contents. He maintains a practice in Bethesda, Md. Recommended books for those who wish to learn more about decoy collectibles include
“Pioneer Decoy Carvers: A Biography of Lemuel and Stephen Ward," by Barry R. Berkey;
“Upper Chesapeake Bay Decoys and Their Makers,” by David and Joan Hagan; “Decoys: A Celebration of Contemporary Wildfowl Carving,” by Laurel Aziz and Ernie Sparks; and “Factory Decoys of Mason, Stevens, Dodge and Peterson,”
by John and Shirley Delph.