Duck Decoys

Duck hunting season is about to begin and so is the hunt for duck decoys. Before they began to be seriously collected in the 1970s, they were thought of as another form of folk art. Now they are known as "hunter's art".

As early as 1934, collector Joel D. Barber wrote a book, Wild Fowl Decoys, referring to them as "floating sculptures". If you love the look and lore of duck and other waterfowl decoys but think you can't afford to begin collecting, think again. There are examples that come to auction and sell for a few hundred dollars. Of course, they won't be signed by one of the master carvers, and may be late 20th century. Unless you know what to look for, you may buy a recent reproduction.

Some fine examples were factory made and are worth collecting. The Mason Decoy factory of Detroit Michigan made the first factory decoys (1896-1924). William Mason was a dedicated waterfowl hunter. He began making handmade decoys in 1890 of cedar blocks with heads carved and finished by hand. On an assembly line basis, the decoys were put together, painted and affixed with glass eyes. Auction prices vary widely for them. As low as $200.

Native Americans made the first known decoys, "bird lures", from bulrushes painted in natural colors. The early colonists imitated the Native American lures, that eventually were used in Europe. However, by the late 18th century Americans wanted something more durable. They began carving decoys from wood. Since they were made to attract the bird's eye, not the human's, carvers made and painted them in patterns suggesting plumage.

Every region has carvers who are recognized and collected. In southern Louisiana for example, the carvings show influences of diverse ethnic backgrounds. French, German, Yugoslavian and Italian among them.

CLUES: There are lots of reproductions floating around to fool beginning collectors. In case you are wondering why none are of plastic, the answer is simple. The birds aren't attracted to plastic mates. So how can you tell old from new or the most valuable from an average decoy? One way is the paint job. Many contemporary craftsmen give their ducks realistic feather painting. The older decoys had a formalized pattern of solid color. Reproductions made in Taiwan are artificially aged.

Eyes are another clue. The old decoys often had metal tack eyes or carved and painted ones. Later, glass eyes from taxidermy supply houses were used. Look for tool marks, if the decoy is being sold as old. Main tools used by 19th century makers were the hand ax, draw knife and rasp. By the second half of the 19th century, hollow decoys made of two and three sections were carved. The metal and wood silhouettes that were also used are known as "shadow decoys" or "stick-ups'.

Another clue, look on the keel weights (if they are still attached) for names of early makers.

If the body is cork with carved beak and tail, they were made after the Civil War. By the late 19th century, the factory-made decoys were turned on a reproducing lathe with heads and tails finished by hand.

The price for old decoys depends on who the carvers are. The finest are documented. The type of bird is important with shorebirds and swans the most sought after. Condition and the amount of restoration influence prices. Many that come to market have been professionally restored. Don't pass up a newly carved decoy if the quality is top grade.

 

Maine carved and
painted decoy, c. 1910.
(Courtesy, James Julia Auction, Fairfield, Me.)

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