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Seeking Advice
March/April 2002

In our last issue we reprinted a brief article on "Advice to New Collectors" by Gene & Linda Kangas, well known authors and decoy collectors. It was written quite a long time ago for the Ohio Decoy Collectors newsletter. At the end of a long list of positive suggestions was a comment that has caused a quite a stir among a number of my readers: "When you are considering the purchase of a major decoy, seek the advice of knowledgeable collectors (not dealers)."
"What exactly did that mean?" is how one of my advertisers, a long-time dealer in quality decoys, put it to me. Not wanting to put words in anyone's mouth, we asked Gene & Linda if they'd like to respond.

"I think they missed the point," they emailed us. "Essentially new collectors were cautioned to seek the council of experienced collectors when considering important additions to their collections. Ideally, they were directed first, if possible, to the most knowledgeable collectors they could find. By comparison, there is a possibility that dealers have a conflict of interest. Is it possible that is why some dealers have taken issue with the comment?"

There is no doubt always the chance that a dealer, eager to make a sale, would find new collectors fair game, sitting ducks. One dealer once offered me the following confession: "If you don't know what you're buying, you shouldn't do business with me."

"What do you think?" asked another long time purveyor of wooden birds, soliciting my comment on the implied indictment.

First of all, I understand Gene & Linda's concern, they were simply suggesting that new collectors be cautious. I've offered the same advice myself, because once burned, never forgotten. Many new collectors have gotten off to bad experiences, buying outright fakes and misrepresentations, and abandoned the hobby. But I think they made a mistake by placing the blame on dealers as a whole. Many full-time dealers are looking to establish a relationship with a new collector and eventually fill his shelves with decoys, it's not a one-time sale for most. And the greatest assistance a veteran dealer can provide a new collector is an experienced and trained eye.

There's one service that many dealers provide and it's called consulting. In real estate, it would be like being a buyer's agent. Until you've looked at 30 houses in a neighborhood it's hard to compare quality or value. It's like that with Mason mallards or Ira Hudson black ducks. "Joe, I've seen a million of them," one dealer exaggerated. Most dealers will execute purchases for a commission and guarantee the authenticity of the decoy, an invaluable service for new collectors.

Most major dealers provide auction representation. They are available to firsthand inspect the items at a sale for a new collector - whether the collector actually attends the auction or not - advise them on the quality and condition of the decoy, how it compares to other examples and what to expect to pay. "But my best advice is when I tell a client not to buy a bird," says one dealer. That's protection.

Most major dealers are also experienced enough to appraise a decoy collection, although I'm not suggesting that anyone should have a dealer appraise a decoy they've personally bought from them. But I do advise new collectors, particularly those who quickly and indiscriminately accumulated a group of birds, to have them appraised. If they've made mistakes, the appraisal would point them out - early on. Admit them and move on.

Most dealers accept consignments. This provides collectors an option to auction houses, and many dealers sell for a lower rate of commission. Not only do they actively market them through advertisements and attendance at shows, dealers provide the authenticity and guarantee to the buyer. If you're a regular customer many dealers allow you to trade up in quality, accepting exchanges of earlier purchases.

While I think the suggestion to seek advice is sound, and the advice of seasoned collectors is invaluable, we shouldn't overlook the assets of veteran dealers. Besides, the advice of knowledgeable collectors is not always available, while many dealers buy and sell decoys full-time for a living and actively market that service. The easiest way to guarantee knowledgeable advice and reliable service is to pay for it.

Let's consider this: some of the major decoy dealers in the country own some of the finest examples of wildfowl decoys. That's not dumb luck. They've seen so many examples they simply recognize the best.

But it's admittedly getting tougher and tougher to tell the difference between dealers and collectors. At the upcoming National Antique Decoy Show at the Pheasant Run Resort well over 100 rooms will be full of decoy collectors selling decoys. Many collectors take tables at local shows and tailgate outside an auction whenever the opportunity presents itself. It's welcome. But are they dealers? I'd call them collectors getting in on a little of the action, taking the opportunity to upgrade their collections. But what if they own a decoy and are trying to sell it? How do you draw the line?

And now we hear that the auction house of Guyette & Schmidt is going to start selling decoys online. So are they an auction house or a decoy dealer? Or is it a symbiotic relationship, we're all players in the same game.

No doubt there are charlatans dealers who parade themselves as decoy "experts" and out-right thieves who prey on the uninformed. But the decoy collecting community is a small universe, all in all. Once news or rumors hit the grapevine, they spread pretty quickly. The culprits get discovered and their reputations get destroyed. Unfortunately it's often the new collectors that have to pay.

We could all do more to protect the integrity of decoy collecting by being more forthright in pointing out the mistakes, but too many collectors demure. What's in it for them, they say? After all, who wants to be the messenger of bad news? So some heavily restored decoys and outright fakes are allowed to circulate in the market as legitimate examples. Too few brave souls are willing to deliver the message.

Here again, the services of a decoy dealer can pave the way. "Joe, as long as they pay me, I'll tell them what they have," said one dealer. "They can pay the price now or they'll pay the price later."

See you in St. Charles. Oh, and don't forget to bring some birds to sell.