On Jan. 18, 2003, Jon Frank assisted in the Christie’s New York Russell B. Aitken Sale, which resulted in a record bid of $801,500 for a Preening Pin Tail Drake by A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts c. 1915. Additionally, a pair of Red Breast Mergansers made by Lothrop Holmes of Kingston, Massachusetts c. 1870 sold for $394,500 at the same sale. Numerous other decoys fell into the $100,000 area.
DUCK DECOY COLLECTING PRESENTED BY AMERICAN ANTIQUES COMPANY AND FRANK OF FRANK & FRANK SPORTING COLLECTIBLES
The early NJ decoy carvers were not actual artists that were making decoys as decorative objects. Decoys were made by hunters to trap and hunt ducks as well as to train hunting dogs to retrieve the birds they shoot. Condition, paint quality and form are the things most often looked at first by top collectors. Many decoys achieve value because they were made by a carver with a highly regarded reputation. Each decoy carver left an unconscious individual signature on his decoys through certain details with the knife or brush. Even though carvers sometimes make different styles like preeners, sleepers or swimmers, the carving details found on the bills and tails hardly change. When a maker can establish a unique signature trait in his carving or painting, identification of his decoys becomes more reliable.
In order to evaluate and select NJ’s best decoy makers, two distinct waterfowling periods are identified- period one, the time before 1920, and period two, the time after 1920. Those producing most of their decoys before 1920 are considered first generation carvers, and those making most of their decoys after 1920 are recognized as second-generation carvers. The year 1920 was chosen to separate the distinct waterfowling period because market hunting was coming to a close around then, which changed the need for hand-made decoys and the practice of decoy carving.
DUCK DECOY CARVING: A NEW JERSEY TRADITION
New Jersey has long been known to decoy collectors all over the country for its rich history of waterfowling. New Jersey carvers developed a tradition of hollowing out decoys to reduce the weight of the boat’s gear. These Barnegat decoys are known as “dugouts” and except for the early types, all are hollowed white cedar. The abundant supply of white cedar trees in the local swamps provided soft lightweight and rot-resistant wood for carving.
New Jersey contemporary carvers carry out the tradition of making decoys in two pieces, with hollowed carved bodies and attached pine heads. Jersey hunters used a shallow draft boat known as the Barnegat Bay sneak box, which was designed for excursions over the shallow saltwater bays. Weight is an important factor when loading a boat with a dog, a weapon, ammunition, food, a decoy rig, so hollowing out the decoys reduces some of this weight. The carving technique also adds value for collectors because of the extra work and skill it requires.
A serious collector realizes that while thousands of decoys were made, few survive today in original condition. Jersey decoys were heavily used, and the salt water attacked their paint from the time they were tossed overboard. The common practice of repainting them after each hunting season makes it challenging to find examples of original paint. Few were used as decoration and when market hunting came to an end, thousands were used as firewood or thrown away.
A VARIETY OF DUCK DECOYS: A DUCK ISN’T JUST A DUCK
The variety of decoys produced in any given region is related to the species of birds that migrate there. Usually, the more northern the origin of a decoy, the greater its size and flatter its bottom. The flat bottoms on the decoys from the upper coast allow them to ride heavy seas with much less roll than one that has a round bottom.
Though many bird species migrate to New Jersey, the majority hunted along the coast are geese, brant, black duck and broadbill. Though oldsquaw, merganser, goldeneye and bufflehead can be found in the area, it is rare to find their decoys. Early carvers like Joe King, Mark English and Harry V. Shourds were among the few who made oldsquaw decoys in New Jersey. Large numbers of mallard decoys were used in the Midwest, but very few were made by New Jersey coastal carvers.
READ ABOUT DUCK DECOYS AT AUCTION: BIDS WORTH QUACKING ABOUT
The $800,000 Duck Decoy, Wall Street Journal
Duck! That Decoy Costs $800,000, New York Magazine