dollar decoy auction
Achieving an adjusted gross of $2,084,454 marked the second time Guyette & Schmidt has gone over the two-million dollar level in their 18-year history of decoy auctions, which has settled into a three-auctions per year schedule. The scene was their April 26-27, 2001 auction in conjunction with the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association Show at the posh Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois. This was also the setting of their largest gross of this schedule, the April 1996 auction of the Hillman collection that did $2,708,825. We do not count their one time collaboration with Sotheby’s, which sold the McCleery collection for $10,832,946. It was a special occasion that confounds comparison.
This spring 2001 auction had no great collection like McCleery’s or Hillman’s, so how did they double their million-dollar "average?" We credit three categories as doing the most to break into the two-million-dollar class: Crowell decoratives, Illinois River decoys and herons. Herons? Yes, herons!
But first, let’s look at the figures. With two lots withdrawn, they offered 977 lots. WE eliminated 35 lots which are unrelated to wildfowl decoys and decoratives (fish, canes, etc.), adjusting the total offering to 942 of which 49 (5%) did not sell, leaving 893 that sold for $2,084,454 for a remarkably high $2334 per lot average, and was 24% over total low estimate after deducting the $149,930 total low estimate of the unsold lots. The top 25 lots (3% of those sold) accounted for $747,450 (36% of the gross) and was 21% over the total average estimate of the top 25. All of which points to a sellers’ market continuing.
Two great gray herons from the south shore of Massachusetts were bought at a yard sale in Marshfield, Massachusetts last Columbus Day weekend and consigned to this auction where they were estimated to go for $22,000/33,000 and $16,500/22,000. We considered these fair estimates, if a bit excessive, as their clever construction with mortises, pegs and pins were offset by restoration of bills and legs and some repaint. They sold way over estimate at $57,750 and $51,700, the top two prices of the auction. Earlier in the auction, two roothead herons by Chief Eugene Cuffee (1866-1941) of Shinnecock, New York, estimated at $13,200/17,600 each, sold for $18,700 and $11,000. We heard the $57,500 heron went to Texas, the $11,000 heron to a Long Island museum, and the other two to a decoy collector with a broad range of interests.
Collectors often prefer the early decoys of a carver to his later decoratives as more authentic. This is a mistake in the case of A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich on Cape Cod, who began making decoratives almost as early as he began making decoys. As Brian Cullity writes in the Foreword to "The Songless Aviary," his excellent study of Crowell, "It can truly be said that decorative bird carving was invented in the humble workshop in East Harwich and has been the predominant influence on that art throughout the twentieth century." A few knowledgeable collector/dealers were aware of this and pursued the Crowell decoratives at auctions while the greater numbered ignored the decoratives to fight over his decoys. The impressive Crowell decorative collection of one of these knowledgeable ones was offered here and it seems all collectors got the message, judging by the high prices. Fourteen Crowells made the top 25 list and 13 were his decoratives – the 14th was a wood duck decoy that was so good it could have passed for a decorative and it brought $24,750.
The auction’s top two Crowell decoratives were a preening curlew with lifted wing at $48,950, and a whimbrel (Hudsonian curlew) at $47,850, both well over estimate. A flying mallard, made to hang from the ceiling, was over estimate at $31,900. Three of his standers made $30,800 (preening black duck), $22,000 (preening mallard hen) and $19,800 (mallard), all within estimate. Six Crowell shorebirds sold way over estimate at $30,250 (ruddy turnstone), $26,400 (running black-bellied plover), $25,300 (black-bellied plover), $24,750 (golden plover) and $19,800 each (killdeer and preening yellowlegs with lifted wing). All in the top 25 were full-sized except for a 2/3-sized wood duck, over estimate at $20,900.
Three Crowell life-sized yellowlegs sold for five figures but missed the top 25 list: runner at $15,950, split wing at $15,400, and a preener with extended dropped wing at $14,300.
I don’t do fish unless it was carved by Crowell, Shang Wheeler or some other noted wildfowl decoy maker, so I’m reporting that a full-bodied pickerel on an 18-inch-long wall plaque, carved by Crowell, made its estimate at $11,000. And not every Crowell decorative sold; his preening black duck, estimated at $30,250/35,750, failed to make reserve and was bought-in.
With the auction held in the heart of Illinois River country, it was no surprise to see as many as 182 lots of their hollow-carved decoys from which to choose, and six of them made the top 25: three Perdews, two Ellistons and a Graves. From Charles Perdew of Henry came a pair of pintails, used in the Schmidt rig, the drake at $28,600 and the hen at $22,550, and a preening gadwall hen at $20,350, the pintails over estimate and the gadwall within. From Robert Elliston of Bureau came a mallard at its high estimate $22,000 and a redhead at $19,800, exactly as estimated. From Bert Graves of Peoria came a sleeping mallard hen, just under estimate at $24,750.
Further down the line, we found a near-mint pair of green-winged teal by Perdew a great buy at $9900. Also a near-mint wigeon by George Sibley (the former Mr. X) of Whitehall, Michigan an even better buy at $3850. There were two by Charles Walker of note: a pintail that had some neck restoration and varnish removed, estimated $27,500/29,700, that did not sell, and a mallard from the McCleery collection that was pictured in "Call to the Sky" that sold over estimate at $8800 in spite of some repaint.
The rarest of the rare are the hollow-carved shorebirds of Dr. Clarence Gardner and Newton Dexter of Sakonnet Point, Little Compton, Rhode Island, circa 1890. Two of their dowitchers sold for $107,000 and $101,500 out of the McCleery collection in January 2000. So when a black-bellied plover by them turned up, it was cautiously estimated at 66,000/77,000 but it only made $46,200. An early dowitcher in spring plumage from the north shore of Massachusetts is believed to be by the same unknown who made the record curlew that brought $335,500 in 1997; that’s why it made its high-estimate $19,800. A curlew by John Dilley of Quogue, Long Island, New York was near mint except for a restored bill; it made estimate at $17,600. A late-19th century running curlew by Nathan Cobb Jr. of Cobb Island, Virginia was a beat-up old bird that was just under estimate at $15,400.
When a black-bellied plover by George Boyd of Seabrook, New Hampshire sells for $12,980 as it did last year in St. Charles, we know it’s because it was catalogued as "the finest Boyd plover we have ever seen." The one at this auction had problems (discoloration and wear on one side) and it was just short of estimate at $9900. With this price – triple what the best Body plovers used to cost – and Boyd miniatures climbing past A.J. King’s, we can conclude that the market is very bullish on Boyds. And a circa 1860s curlew by Obediah Verity of Seaford, Long Island, New York with a replaced bill made its low-estimate $7700.
Two good but not great black ducks by Shang Wheeler of Stratford, Connecticut made $16,500 each, just under estimate for a sleeper and over estimate for a hollow-carved turned head. Two more Wheelers of interest were a neat hollow-carved canvasback hen, under estimate at $9900, and a near-mint preening balsa-bodied black-bellied plover at its low-estimate $3850; the consignor paid $1200 for this bird at Bourne’s July 1974 auction of the Mackey collection.
A circa 1920s decorative redhead was carved with extended wings and lead feet by Ira Hudson of Chincoteague, Virginia, and sold here for its low-estimate $16,500.
I’ve liked that hollow-carved Canada goose from the Long Point Gun Club ever since I saw it on page 104 of Barney Crandell’s "Decoying" book, and so did others who bid it to $14,850, almost double its average estimate.
Collectors of decoys by the Ward brothers of Crisfield, Maryland had to wait to get two of their early ducks under estimate: a pintail from the Purnell collection at $13,200 and a wigeon from the White Mallard Gun Club near Calusa, California at $9900.
We counted 66 lots of Mason decoys that sold for an average of $1251 per lot, topped by a Premier grade pair of mallards with snakey heads at $10,450 (almost double high estimate), a Premier wigeon at $7700 (within estimate) and a Challenge blue-winged teal with snakey head at $4620 (over estimate). An early style Challenge merganser with minor problems that brought its estimate down to $4400/6600 did not sell.
last revised on 06/18/2001
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