Tips of the Trade
Hunting for Duck Decoys
Appraiser Nancy Druckman meets a pair of ducks in Indianapolis.
Nancy says the ideal decoy is "made for hunting."
Frank Perdue makes chickens; Charles Perdue carved ducks.
A Bird of a Different Feather
Chances are, the duck decoys you've spied at your local antique shop were once floated in muddy waters, baked in the summer sun, seated on black ice, stuffed in gunny sacks, and even blasted with buckshot by their owners—not typical fare for most antiques or collectibles.
If it looks like a duck, but doesn't sound like a duck, it's probably a decoy. Learn more about these collectible deceivers
"Decoy ducks are interesting in that they are utilitarian objects and also works of art," says Nancy Druckman, director of the American folk art department at Sotheby's in New York City. She's talking about the carved wooden duck decoys that hunters and manufacturers used in large numbers from the early 19th through the first half of the 20th century (Fewer decoys were made after Congress outlawed the hunting of birds for sale in 1918).
Another feature separates decoy ducks from other antiques and collectibles. "They are a quintessential American art form, with pleasing sculptural qualities," Nancy says. "They were being made even before the white man came to our shores." Nancy's referring to the decoys that Native Americans used to snag birds. In 1924, archeologists found 11 ancient working decoys that were 1,000 years old, in the Humbolt Range of western Nevada. Indians often made these decoys by weaving reeds into the shape of a duck or by actually mounting the feathery bird skin onto a frame.
Still, despite these special features, decoy birds live by the rules established by the contemporary marketplace. "They are in their own sort of way vernacular sculpture and folk art," Nancy explains. "But they are subject to the same concerns and issues as any antique."
Authenticity, for example, is crucial. "You want to pay attention to whether the decoy is entirely intact," Nancy says. "Is the head the original head? Is there any indication of alteration or cosmetic restoration? You don't want that. You want the original bird."
As in all other collectible areas, collectors seek out working birds still in tip-top shape. "The optimum is a decoy that was made for hunting but never saw service," Nancy says. Too fine, though, and collectors should begin to suspect foul play. Forged decoys, Nancy points out, often are painted very realistically, as if they were plucked from a Peterson's Guide—an accuracy that reveals they weren't made for a hunter's gunny bag.
With reproduction decoys, "you're hard-pressed to tell the difference between a real bird and a wood one," says Nancy, again reminding potential collectors that decoy ducks were functional hunters' equipment before they became collectible. "The broad outline is what matters the most. Some Indians made their decoys out of sticks and mud."
A bird in hand ... can cost you
After their insistence on authenticity, decoy collectors tend to fly their own routes. Many collectors, for instance, only scope out decoys of local bird populations. Cape Codders seek saltwater ducks that bob along its sandy shores and Minnesotans seek lake-loving Midwestern migrators. Some collectors ignore geography, preferring instead to focus on aesthetics. They care more about a decoy's form and line than its genealogy.
"Do you prefer the abstract coloring of the Maine Eider?" Nancy asks the potential decoy collector. "Or do you like the delicate birds? Or are you drawn to the solid-looking ones? That's all personal preference."
And so is the hunt for particular decoy artists. A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1951) an East Harwich, Massachusetts, carver widely considered the best decoy maker ever, had one of his Canada Geese sell for an astounding $684,500 at a 2000 Sotheby's sale, the highest-flying decoy sale price to date. Everything about it was perfect, Nancy notes. The Canada goose's position—its neck turned back and its sleepy head imbedded into its feathers—was extremely rare and its condition was mint. "It was a virtuoso carving."
At the Indianapolis ANTIQUES ROADSHOW, Nancy estimated that a mint-condition pair of drake Mallard decoys carved by noted Illinois decoy-maker Charles Perdue, were worth in the $10,000 to $20,000 range. ("Sitting pretty, as we say in the duck business," Nancy told the owner.) Nancy adds, though, that many decoys carved and painted by unknown folk artists can sell for under $1,000, with many selling for just a few hundred dollars. And don't be put off if you find a bird with a few pocks in its side. "Collectors are very reassured," observes Nancy, "to see little shotgun marks on them, because then they know they are working with real decoys." (This does not apply to your Chippendale.)
Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a regular contributor to ANTIQUES ROADSHOW Online since 1998.