L E T T E R S T O T H E E D I T O R
Letters to the Editor
Anticipation, then disappointment
Knowing the position previously taken by Hunting & Fishing Collectibles Magazine on the Charles Sumner Bunn/William Bowman decoy attribution, I waited with great anticipation to see what new information and supporting documentation would be brought by the Bowman supporters. I was disappointed when I read the article and found it was simply a rehash of the Herrick family’s oral history. Anyone who is familiar with these decoys is aware of the Herrick family’s folklore. In fact, the William Bowman attribution begins - and ends - with it.
There is more tangible evidence for Bunn as the maker of these decoys than there is for the vast majority of accepted attributions. There is photo evidence of the decoy maker sitting with his decoys. This alone should be enough to change the attribution to Bunn. Instead, Mr. McGrath attempts to discredit tangible documentation rather than produce any of his own to support the Bowman attribution. There is no alternative for him because there is no supportive documentation for the Bowman attribution.
Mr. McGrath states he is responding in part due to his “…close association with the Herrick family…” As one of the few things I believe to be true in his article, I also believe this close association has clouded his judgment. I cannot address all the errors and speculations in his article; instead, my response will focus on some of the more egregious missteps.
The Herrick rig was not ignored in my article. In fact, it was identified as the one known rig not from a Southampton resident but is then connected to Southampton through Herrick’s relationship with Orson Munn, which Mr. McGrath himself acknowledges. Secondly, he mistakenly states that Charles Bunn declared himself “…the maker of fancy decoys…” when in fact this appears in the editor’s note of ‘The Setting Sun” pamphlet, of which Will Graham was the editor.
Additionally, the notion that the photo of Charles Bunn sitting in his booth at the old Madison Square Garden is anything but exactly that, is one of the most exasperating aspects of the H&FC article. It is logical that Will Graham is represented by the photographed sign and is physically in the photo. As mentioned above, he was the editor of the pamphlet produced in association with Bunn selling his decoys at the same show. Referring to Bunn, again from Graham’s editor’s note, “…maker of fancy decoys, samples of which can be seen at the Garden during the season of The Sportsmen’s Show.”
For the time period of the photograph, early 1900s, photography required a great deal of set-up and cooperation from the individuals, requiring them to sit perfectly still. People would have had to be prevented from walking to and about the table for the duration of the exposure. This wasn’t a photograph taken with a digital camera. And it is hard to believe with all that was required to take such a photo, that the wrong person would be sitting with the decoys.
Regarding the redhead with BUNN carved in the bottom, Mr. McGrath contradicts himself, first stating that on Bowman decoys the body seam is “above” the tail. Then, in the very next sentence, he states, “…on at least four of his decoys the seam is below the tail,” just like the Bunn redhead.
Regarding “Bunn’s Own Style” of duck decoys, the Hendryx rig decoys are referenced. Again, the article is inaccurate; the decoys are not signed. Mr. McGrath correctly states what is written on the bottom of these decoys, but this does not constitute a signature. He acknowledges Bunn carved decoys into his 80s. This may account for the changes in style, particularly the later less fancy birds, as the ability of many carvers deteriorates with age.
The article attempts to disprove the identified known rigs of Bunn's documented clients. Statements such as, “For all we know, Newbold Edgar may have acquired William Bowman decoys before he even met Charles S. Bunn,” couldn’t be more speculative in nature. Where is the evidence in any form that connects Edgar to a Bill Bowman? Mr. McGrath accepts the fact that Edgar and Bunn were friends, so there is no need to argue their documented relationship and the likelihood of Edgar getting his decoys from Bunn.
Regarding Harry Davis Ives, it is a documented fact that Ives lived across the street from the Shinnecock Indian Reservation. Mr. McGrath seems to accept this “geographical proximity,” as he puts it, but then dismisses this short distance and friendship as to why Ives would have acquired his decoys from Bunn.
He refers to Orson Munn Jr.'s quote, “I can’t imagine my father purchasing decoys from anyone but Charles Bunn” as "unattributed," then proceeds to quote from my article: “In a 2003 interview with Orson Munn Jr…” This is the attribution! He then states that the auction description indicates that “Orson D. Munn purchased two William Bowman decoys from someone in Quogue, Long Island.” The auction description (lot 260, Julia/Guyette, Sept. 1986) states no such thing regarding the maker of the decoys he purchased.
In reference to the Ernest DeMerci black duck, Mr. McGrath dismisses the note on the bottom of the decoy, yet it clearly states that it came from a Shinnecock Indian, which we know Bunn was and Bowman wasn’t. Regarding the Mary referenced in the note, I acknowledge it may have been a different Mary than the one I identified. Yet Mr. McGrath seems to want it both ways, referring to it as just “an anonymously written note," then later as “recorded historical quotes.”
Mr. McGrath then turns to E. Jane Townsend’s “Gunner’s Paradise” (1979) as evidence. Yet she acknowledges she has no idea who Bill Bowman really was: "The identity of William Bowman, decoy carver, has not been firmly established." She then presents three possibilities and chooses one. In “Section VIII, Long Island Carvers, William Bowman,” Townsend writes, "As this catalog is published, information on a William Bowman has been discovered, but whether or not it is the William Bowman has not been established." Even the author acknowledges this is flimsy evidence.
And then we have the purported ‘missing Bill Bowman photo’ with his shorebird decoys. Unfortunately, a missing photograph is a non-existent photograph. And based on McGrath logic, this wouldn’t prove anything anyway as Bowman may have just posed with somebody's decoys, much like Bunn did, according to McGrath, at the Madison Square Garden Show.
The article acknowledges that perhaps it would have been difficult for Bowman to carve these shorebirds in his tent, but this is quickly dismissed by speculating, based on no documentation, that he may have carried his shorebird blanks out to the tent. Keep in mind, these aren’t flatty, non-descript shorebird decoys, but are some of the finest carved and painted shorebird decoys ever known. You decide for yourself if they came from the hand of a man who liked to drink by all accounts, while sitting in a marsh tent.
Mr. McGrath admits that there is no way Bowman could have carved duck decoys in the tent: “What is certain is the fact that making waterfowl decoys with inletted heads and hollow bodies cannot be accomplished by anybody living on the beach, in a tent.” I couldn’t agree more. As for the imaginary Bowman workshop, there are a lot of “may,” “possibly” and “may have been” followed by the ultimate admission: “…but this could not be proven.”
So why include this speculation when there is absolutely no documentation to support it?
He then writes: “It should be noted that Lawrence and East Rockaway are separated by approximately four miles.” You can’t have it both ways. You can’t dismiss the “geographical proximity” of Bunn to Edgar and Ives and then use the proximity of Lawrence to East Rockaway to try to establish some fantasy workspace for Bowman which, again, in Mr. McGrath's own words, “…could not be proven.” And I’m not sure how this supposed “oyster house” lent itself to the production of decoys. We know Charles Bunn had an actual workshop.
Regarding the Herrick family’s donation to the Museums at Stony Brook, first Mr. McGrath mistakenly states that “The 1959 donation contained a small number of William Bowman and Obediah Verity shorebird decoys.” In fact, the donation letter(s) state that the Herrick family attributed the Verity decoys to a “Capt. Ben Verity, U.S. Life-saving Station, Gilgo Inlet," not Obediah Verity of Seaford, Long Island.
Mr. McGrath admonishes me for attempting to identify the Mary on the DeMerci decoy paper label and then proceeds to change the Capt. Ben Verity attribution of decoys donated by the Herrick family, the very people he is relying on for the Bill Bowman attribution. This becomes critically important when we look at all the Herrick family decoys donated to the museum. Besides the misattributed Verity decoys, we have the shorebird decoys attributed to "Capt. Dan Havens, Moriches, L.I.," which by all accounts would be credited to William Southard of Bellmore, Long Island today. The letter further states the Herrick family donated two "dowitch decoys," which were later identified as beach robins or red knots.
So all the non-“Bowman” decoys the Herrick family donated to the museum were misattributed and misidentified in the 1959 donation letter, yet we are expected to believe that in this one case they got it right. It surely casts doubt on their ability to attribute their own decoys. In the cases of Ben Verity and Dan Havens, the Herrick attribution is overturned with no outcry for the validity of the Herrick’s oral tradition. In fact, not even the Museums at Stony Brook, the recipient of these decoys, accepted the Herrick's documentation and changed the attributions. The same misattributions are contained in Bill Mackey's 1966 appraisal letter of the Herrick decoys.
In his summary, Mr. McGrath returns to the donation letters and states, “Since 1959 no one has seriously challenged this creditable documentation.” Well, now somebody has. As stated earlier, every other decoy donated by the Herrick family to the Museums of Stony Brook listed in the 1959 letter was misidentified. Every other decoy! And I’m not sure how credible documentation is when you write it yourself.
We have independent documentation for Bunn as a decoy maker, while none exists for Bowman. That Mr. McGrath can state that the Bowman attribution is “documented decoy history” is astonishing. His only "creditable documentation," the 1959 donation letter, has now been discredited.
As I stated at the beginning of this letter, the Bowman attribution begins and ends with the Herrick story. That this story has been repeated in every book since Mackey’s 1966 Decoy Collector’s Guide article does not make it fact.
And I hate to end with this point, but unfortunately Mr. McGrath chose to go there at the end of his article. Regarding the asinine statement that these decoys don’t look “Native American” enough for Mr. McGrath and his unidentified friend, it’s a shockingly close-minded remark for a man with a “…long history of involvement in the decoy collecting world (since 1953)…”
- Joseph Jannsen