By Bill Buckley
In 2007, a red-breasted merganser decoy carved by Lothrop Holmes in the 19th century sold at auction for $856,000. At the time, it was one of the highest prices ever paid for a decoy. Stories about antique decoys selling for six or even seven figures are impressive, but they can be intimidating for the average hunter who might be interested in acquiring some collectible decoys of his or her own. If you love the look of handmade decoys and the traditions they represent, rest assured that there are many out there for sale at a reasonable price. Here are some suggestions on how to find them.
Narrowing the Field
As you're getting started, it's important to narrow down your area of interest. Major decoy categories include working, decorative, antique, and contemporary. You can also collect decoys of a certain region or species or maybe an individual carver whose style really catches your fancy.
Katie Burke, manager of Ducks Unlimited's Waterfowling Heritage Center at the Bass Pro Shops Pyramid in Memphis, advises beginners to find an area of focus as quickly as possible. "A lot of new collectors jump all over the place until they settle on what they are most interested in," Burke says. "You'll save time and gain expertise faster if you pick your lane early. Focusing on a particular area will teach you how to approach decoys analytically and develop an eye for quality and style.
"Certain regions are historically significant, and focusing on one of them could be a way to narrow your search," Burke continues. "The East Coast is where decoy-carving traditions began, but the upper Mississippi Flyway, especially the Illinois River region, has lots of rich decoy history, and so do California and Louisiana. Within those areas are certain styles and common duck species that might catch your eye. Cape Cod decoys, for example, are stylistically different than decoys from North Carolina and Virginia. Pintails dominate California decoys, as do eiders and scoters in Maine. And lots of species are represented in the Illinois River region."
Understanding a Decoy's Value
Value is determined by quality, form, style, and other factors, such as scarcity. The prices of older, very rare decoys and those from the more sought-after carvers can be out of reach for many collectors, although Mason decoys, which were widely produced and distributed in the early 1900s, can still be purchased inexpensively. Some collectors find decoys from contemporary carvers more attainable and hence a good starting place.
Also important is a decoy's condition, which can be influenced by geography. "Many Louisiana decoys have been subjected to harsher conditions, like hurricanes, and are often made from inferior wood compared to, say, Cape Cod decoys, so their condition is judged differently," Burke explains. "And because most decoys have been hunted over, there's often damage and wear and tear. All of this will affect value."
A decoy's history is also important. An old decoy without a carver's stamp or signature is typically less valuable than one with it. Some gunners or duck clubs marked decoys as part of their rigs, and those marks can make one decoy more valuable than another of similar quality.
1. Check out reference books on decoys, particularly American Bird Decoys, by William J. Mackey Jr., and Wild Fowl Decoys, by Joel Barber.
2. Look for decoy collectors' association websites and social media accounts that can help you connect with knowledgeable decoy enthusiasts in your area.
3. Go to a decoy show. Many excellent shows are held across the country every year, including those hosted by the North American Decoy Collectors Association, the Ohio Decoy Collectors & Carvers Association, and the Ward Museum.
4. Check out the Guyette & Deeter auction company website (decoysforsale.com). They host weekly auctions, are extremely reputable, and offer decoys for every budget.