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Summers in New England
July/August 2001

The lure of Maine lobsters, soothing low humidity weather and over 1000 birds about to hit the block is more than enough to attract a myriad of avid decoy collectors within range of an auctioneer’s hammer. So every summer we travel to New England.

This year’s journey began on Cape Cod with a Decoy Show on Saturday in Sandwich followed by a two-session auction by Ted Harmon’s Decoys Unlimited in nearby Bourne that started the following evening. We arrived on Sunday in time for the preview.

The star of Harmon’s sale was a rig of shorebirds from Long Island that was handed down through the family to William Thorne, who acquired them in 1950. Many of the shorebirds – including curlews, plovers, willets, dowitchers, yellowlegs and peeps - were at least 150 years old. The repaint on some was applied before the turn of the last century. While the condition on some had suffered, their rarity and sheer numbers excited the crowd – and the bidding was fierce. While we had hoped to bag our limit, we settled for one of the curlews.

Ted has also had success with miniatures in the last few years. They certainly added success to this year’s sale. George Boyd’s miniatures are much more rare than those of his contemporary, Elmer Crowell. The prices are starting to reflect it. A pair of wood ducks at $8250, a pair of knots at $7700, a red-breasted merganser hen at $4235 and a scoter at $3740 reflect this growing interest. Jackson Parker will cover this sale in its entirety in our next issue.

Before we move up the coast, we’d like to comment on Saturday’s Decoy Show in Sandwich. We understand that only about 15 or so exhibitors set up and by early afternoon many were packing out. Yet many I spoke with either bought or sold something of interest. But honestly, the show was poorly planned and inadequately promoted. First of all, it needs to be the same day and at the same location as Harmon’s auction. Many people who planned to attend the auction traveled on Saturday, negating their attendance. Then what was everybody supposed to do on Sunday until Ted’s preview opened late that afternoon?

I spoke with a couple of guys who ran the show that told me they planned to coordinate it much better next year. We support that idea. But why should it be their responsibility. I said this last year and I’ll repeat myself: why not resurrect the New England Decoy Collectors Association and have them sponsor the show. Maybe we can even have a fun social clambake like in the old days at the Bourne sales. But somebody’s got to take the initiative and we hope the New England collectors – and believe me, there’s plenty of them - can round up enough interest and support to give this show the attention and promotion it deserves. C’mon guys!

Taking leave of the Cape we headed to Boston to visit the Museum of Fine Arts new Folk Art Exhibit, which is a bit short on decoys but has many wonderful items on display.

We arrived at the Cliff House in Ogunquit, Maine on Wednesday to take part in the Buy, Swap and Sell meet there and to participate in Guyette & Schimdt’s annual summer auction. This year they torn down the side building where all of us displayed our wares and hung out during our stay, forcing the exhibitors to spread out over three floors of the main building. All three floors had their drawbacks: either the room was too small or the access was limited. But again, most of the exhibitors I spoke to had positive results - either buying or selling. And the view from the cliffs and the refreshing weather was perfect.

The strength of Guyette & Schmidt’s auction centered on a group of St. Clair Flats decoys from the collection of the late Barney Crandell and the remainder of a group of Crowell full size decorative wildfowl carvings.

Prior to the auction we heard a few collectors gripe that many of Barney’s best items had been sold privately or remained with the family, doubting that the remainder would excite the crowd. But were they ever wrong. The top seller of this group was a hollow pintail in partial working repaint by an unknown maker that soared over its $4400/5500 estimate, selling to the phone for $31,900. Two phone bidders, one taking forever to make up his mind on nearly every bid, continued endlessly to the amazement of the crowd. And a Canada goose by Phineas Reeves, one of seven hollow Flats geese offered, sold to a bidder in the audience for $24,750, nearly double its average estimate.

At the early Bourne auctions in the 1960s and 70s, Crowell decoratives often drove the market, bringing a majority of the top 25 lots in any given sale. Lately they were often overlooked, giving way to the more desirable hunting decoys that he produced throughout his years. Not any more. The prices boomed once again, as they did with the group offered this past April in St. Charles, led by a woodcock in Crowell’s finest paint, formerly in the collection of Nina Fletcher Little, that brought $37,950. It was one of the best Crowell full-sized decoratives that we’ve ever seen. We tip our hat to the buyer.

Once again, Jackson Parker will provide coverage of the entire sale in the next issue of Decoy Magazine.

We had planned to get on the road early Friday afternoon for our return journey, but I was overheard by Gary Guyette who suggested I might want to wait around for a small impromptu preview scheduled for the end of the sale. We did. Many of the small group of decoys on display were additional ones from the Crandell collection, including another Phineas Reeves goose, as well as a rare Tom Chambers pintail. But what likely prompted this effort was a consignment that showed up just before the auction, the rarest of the rare: a perfectly matched pair of Peterson wood ducks! Who would have even guessed they existed.

Sure, there’s plenty of lobster, cool morning air and fabulous vistas on our New England journey. But let’s face it, we come for the decoys.