Antique Duck Decoys: An Expert Collector‘s Guide

There‘s something captivating about antique duck decoys – these hand-carved wooden waterfowl replicas carry with them the spirit of a bygone era. As an avid collector of these treasured pieces of Americana folk art, I‘m thrilled to share my passion and expertise with you. Whether you‘re a seasoned collector or just beginning to dip your toes into this fascinating world, this in-depth guide will help you appreciate the rich history, craftsmanship, and value behind antique duck decoys.

The Origin of Duck Decoys

The story of duck decoys in North America dates back long before European colonization. Native Americans were the first to create rudimentary decoys, crafting them out of mud and adorning them with feathers and reeds to lure in unsuspecting birds. These early decoys were effective tools that helped secure essential food and resources.

As European settlers arrived and the practice of market hunting grew in the 19th century, decoy-making transformed into a genuine art form. Skilled carvers began crafting wooden decoys, mainly out of cedar or pine, with intricate paint patterns to mimic various duck species. These decoys played a crucial role in the massive commercial waterfowl hunting operations of the time.

It wasn‘t until the mid-20th century that duck decoys began to be recognized as valuable collectibles. A small group of enthusiasts, spearheaded by pioneers like Joel Barber, Adele Earnest, and Hal Sorenson, saw the historical and artistic merit in these humble hunting tools. They began seeking out and preserving the finest examples, and the hobby of antique duck decoy collecting was born.

What Makes a Duck Decoy Valuable?

Not all antique duck decoys are created equal. Several key factors determine a decoy‘s desirability and value in the collectors‘ market:

Maker and Provenance

Just like with any antique, the maker of a duck decoy plays a huge role in its value. Certain carvers and factories are highly sought after due to their reputation for quality, unique style, or historical significance.

For example, decoys made by the famous Mason Decoy Factory of Detroit, Michigan consistently fetch top dollar at auction. Their "Premier Grade" decoys, known for their lifelike paint patterns and fine craftsmanship, can easily sell for tens of thousands of dollars. Other notable makers that command high prices include Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts, the Ward Brothers of Crisfield, Maryland, and Nathan Cobb Jr. of Cobb Island, Virginia, just to name a few.

Provenance, or a decoy‘s ownership history and documentation, is also important. A decoy with a proven connection to a famous collector, carver, or hunting lodge will often have enhanced value.

Rarity and Species

As with any collectible, rarity drives up value. Decoys of uncommon species or from makers with a low output are highly prized. For instance, a rare Mason Premier Grade Wood Duck in near-mint condition sold for a staggering $690,000 in 2014, setting a record for the most expensive decoy ever sold at auction.

Condition and Surface

Condition is king in the decoy world. Collectors covet decoys that have survived the ravages of time and use with their original paint, minimal wear, and no repairs or replacement parts. A decoy‘s surface should show desirable signs of age, like a mellow patina, slight crackle, or minor rubs. But beware of over-worn, badly chipped, or repainted decoys – these "improvements" can significantly reduce value.

Form and Unique Features

The form or style of a decoy can greatly impact its worth. Collectors tend to favor decoys with pleasing proportions, a jaunty attitude, and finely carved details like bill carving or raised wingtips. Unusual features, such as carved eyes, open bills, or rare poses, can also add to a decoy‘s allure and value.

Size

When it comes to antique duck decoys, bigger is often better. Oversized or "magnum" decoys, used to attract flocks from a distance, are highly sought after by collectors. These mammoth decoys can command prices well into the six figures.

Notable Decoy Makers and Regions

Mason Decoy Factory

Any discussion of antique duck decoys must include the Mason Decoy Factory of Detroit, Michigan. From the late 19th to early 20th century, Mason was the leading producer of high-quality, commercially made decoys. Their decoys set the standard with their realistic shapes, precise paint patterns, and durable construction.

Mason offered several grades of decoys. The top-of-the-line "Premier" and "Challenge" Grades featured breath-taking paint detail and extensive feather texturing. Standard Grade decoys were simpler in design but still exhibited Mason‘s characteristic craftsmanship. Today, Mason decoys are the crown jewels of many collections.

Regional Decoy Styles

Decoy making developed regional distinctions based on the unique demands of local hunting conditions and traditions. Here‘s a quick tour of some notable regional styles:

  • Long Island, NY: Bold, chunky decoys carved from white cedar. Often have an "attitude" with upswept tails and lifted heads.
  • Chesapeake Bay: Large, simple decoys made to be sturdy and durable in rough conditions. Carved from cedar or pine and heavily weighted with lead.
  • Illinois River: Hollow carved decoys, many made by famous carvers like Charles Perdew and Robert Elliston. Known for their intricate feather paint patterns.
  • New Jersey: Primitive, often oversized decoys carved by hunters. Later, more decorative decoys made by noted carvers like Harry Shourds.
  • New England: Wide variety of decoys to match the abundant hunting environment. Standout makers include A. Elmer Crowell and the Ward Brothers.

How to Identify and Evaluate an Antique Duck Decoy

Think you may have stumbled upon a valuable old decoy at a flea market or estate sale? Here‘s how to evaluate it like an expert:

  1. Handle the decoy carefully and give it a thorough visual inspection. The wood should look and feel appropriately old and weathered. Obvious signs of recent manufacture are red flags.

  2. Check for a maker‘s mark, stamp, or signature. Many factories and carvers marked their decoys in some way, often on the bottom. An identifiable maker can greatly increase value.

  3. Examine the decoy‘s surface. Is the paint original or has it been touched up? Are there signs of gunshot or working damage? A little honest wear is good, but avoid badly deteriorated decoys.

  4. Look at the decoy‘s eyes. Antique decoys will have either glass eyes or carved wooden eyes. Modern plastic eyes are an instant giveaway.

  5. Consider the decoy‘s style, species, and form. Do some research to see if it matches the traits of a particular region, maker, or factory.

  6. When in doubt, consult reference books or seek the opinion of a respected decoy dealer or collector. Proper ID can mean the difference between a $50 find and a $5,000 treasure.

Buying and Selling Antique Duck Decoys

Ready to start or expand your collection? For the best selection and prices, I recommend attending one of the many decoy shows and auctions held across the country. Here, you can handle numerous decoys in person and learn from the top dealers and collectors. Notable annual events include the National Antique Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show in St. Charles, Illinois and the Easton Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Maryland.

If you can‘t make it to a show, online marketplaces like eBay and Etsy have a wide variety of decoys for sale. However, be cautious and only buy from reputable sellers with clear photos and detailed descriptions. When big money is at stake, consider hiring a professional decoy appraiser to examine a potential purchase in person before you buy.

Building a Collection: Expert Tips

As you embark on your collecting journey, here are some tips to keep in mind:

  • Specialize in what you love. Focus on a particular region, species, maker, or style that resonates with you personally. A cohesive collection is more satisfying than a random assemblage.

  • Prioritize quality over quantity. It‘s better to have a few outstanding decoys than a large number of mediocre ones.

  • Do your homework. Read reference books, attend shows, and talk to experienced collectors. The more you know, the better equipped you‘ll be to spot a great decoy and pay a fair price.

  • Keep detailed records of your decoys, including any provenance information and what you paid for them. Good documentation can significantly increase the value of your collection.

  • Protect your investment. Keep your decoys out of direct sunlight and avoid excessive handling. Consider a fine art insurance policy for your most valuable birds.

I hope this guide has given you a newfound appreciation for the wonderful world of antique duck decoys. These humble hunks of wood, transformed by skilled hands into lifelike works of art, carry the soul of a unique American tradition. As you build your collection, you‘re not just acquiring objects – you‘re preserving a piece of history and becoming part of a passionate community. So go forth and happy hunting! May your next decoy be your best one yet.

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