One of the golden rules of antique collecting is to avoid buying things that are not quite what they seem. But it’s a rule that flies out of the window when it comes to decoy birds – those artfully carved and painted wooden pretenders used by hunters to lure real-life wildfowl down from the skies. Until recently, these intriguing objets were collected primarily by hunters, but now folk-art fans and interior designers have moved in, shifting the focus from shot-peppered examples to those in better condition.
The original decoy duck was invented by American Indians about 3,000 years ago, early ones being improvised from bird skins mounted on floats or sticks. More sophisticated carved and painted versions began to appear in the 1700s, with the decoy maker’s art reaching its peak between the late 19th century and 1925. After this, killing endangered wildfowl was banned, and thousands of suddenly redundant decoys ended up as firewood.
Luckily, decoys were made in vast numbers, and the majority of those that remain can still be had for hundreds rather than thousands of pounds, meaning the field is entirely accessible to new buyers. But taking the subject as seriously as Ohio-based former paper industry executive Alan Haid, who began amassing decoys almost 50 years ago, could land you with a big bill of the non-avian sort. His collection is topped off by a black duck with a turned head that was “chip” carved in 1908 by Cape Cod’s celebrated Elmer Crowell. It’s worth a cool $1m.
“The key to a good collection is not numbers, it’s excellence,” says Haid, who built a dedicated room onto his home to display his 60 museum-quality decoys, which include a 19th-century swimming brant by leading Virginia carver Nathan Cobb, valued at $40,000, and a Canada goose that emerged from the workshop of Massachusetts master Jo Lincoln in the early 1900s and is now worth over $50,000. “I used to be a duck hunter and started buying antique decoys in 1981 when I moved to Connecticut, which is something of a mecca for the genre because so many were made there.”
By far the most valuable and collectable examples were created in the US, notably in fowl-rich areas such as the Delaware River, Maine, New England, New Jersey and Massachusetts, with the most sought-after proponents of the art being the aforementioned Crowell, Cobb and Lincoln. Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, which sold a brant by Cobb for $168,000 in 2014, is a good source, but the world’s leading specialist auction house is Guyette & Deeter in Maryland. In 2000, the firm paired with Sotheby’s to sell the bulk of the legendary collection of the late Dr James McCleery, which realised almost $11m, setting a then auction record of $684,500 for a Canada goose by Crowell – a sum bettered in 2007 when the company, working with Christie’s, hammered down a Lothrop Holmes merganser hen for $856,000. “The market went down a lot in 2008, especially for decoys worth upwards of $10,000,” says Gary Guyette. “It’s now rising again and we’re seeing many new collectors in the upper price range. The more sculptural species, such as pintails and mergansers, are proving popular; the most expensive bird of 2015 was a curlew by Thomas Gelston, which fetched $258,750.”
Decoys of curlews and other birds that live on the water’s edge are known as “stick-ups” as they were mounted on leg-like poles and poked into the shoreline; the more common ones, however, were called “floaters”, intended to represent ducks, geese and other swimming birds. In the UK, dealer Robert Young Antiques offers around 20 decoys per year and recently sold a pair of plovers on their and rare, original iron stems for £2,600, and a single plover for £1,400.
European examples such as these seldom reach the highs of their US counterparts. Amsterdam’s Art of Vintage, for example, sells a number of decoys and currently has a c1955 Dutch carved goose for £1,018, as well as a pair of rare c1945 curlews from Denmark for £582. In Italy, Baldan Decoys is located in Campolongo Maggiore, a little village in the heart of the Venetian lagoon with a rich history of hunting and fishing. Here Stefano Baldan, himself a skilled decoy carver, has a selection of vintage teals, coots and gadwells, and his customers include former Italian footballer Roberto Baggio, who has an impressive collection of decoys.
European decoys may be less exalted, but they are no less collectable. Highlights of Baldan’s current stock include a c1975 Eurasian teal (€8,540) and a c1960 mallard (€1,830), both by Giovanni Simoncin. “Simoncin, who died last year aged 95, was the number-one carver in Italy,” says Baldan’s daughter Eva. “In the 1950s he met Ernest Hemingway, who came hunting in the Venetian lagoon, and made many decoys for him.” And taking the lead from a Nobel Prize-winning author would surely be a good place to start.