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So, how was NYC?
January/February 2003

As in how was the Christie’s/Guyette & Schmidt auction of the Russ Aitken decoy collection?

Well, New York City was great! A long weekend there is always appreciated, especially during the all-important Americana week, when the prestigious auction houses, Sotheby’s and Christie’s, each hold multiple high profile sales, and a myriad of quality antique shows are sprinkled throughout Manhattan. It’s like attending a museum. And we visited a museum, the new location of the American Museum of Folk Art, no longer the Museum of American Folk Art. They have some terrific decoys in their collection. One collector who I kept bumping into remarked on the pair of Lothrop Holmes mergansers in their collection. How would they do at auction, he wondered? We’ll likely never know.

But how was the decoy auction? Well, it’s hard to say anything negative about a collection that included two items that sold for $801,500 (a record-breaking price) and $395,000 - the Crowell preening pintail and the Lothrop Holmes mergansers - and totaled $2,833,568 for its 365 lots. Jackson Parker provides all the details in this issue (see page 40).

But beyond witnessing the theatrics in the sale of those two lots, it was a pretty humdrum auction, at least for a DECOY collector. I already knew who was buying the pintail (dealer Steve O’Brien Jr. for a client who owns the record setting Crowell Canada goose), I just didn’t know what he’d have to pay for it. I predicted a record, but only if someone else was equally moved, thereby requiring him to pay it. Some predicted he’d pay a million, but he never had to prove it. The mergansers were a surprise, if only because the buyer appears to be a new player, reportedly the client of a familiar consultant who has represented a major collector in the past. If this pair had been in better condition, some insisted, it would have topped the selling price of the pintail. But it wasn’t.

There were a handful of other choice items that grabbed the attentions and high bids of decoy collectors, and due to the dearth of quality inventory in general, most required a bid way more than estimate. But without those few, the auction would have been completely dominated by decorative carvings, a number by Crowell and the Ward brothers, but many more by Gibian, McNair, Kerr, Bob White and other contemporaries. Yet check the price key and it’s hard to argue the results. Obviously decoratives are getting a growing following. (Personally I would have preferred to bid at Bourne’s July 1983 auction that’s covered in this issue as the 22nd part in a series of articles on the early decoy auctions - see page 24.)

So how was the auction? It was great. To walk into Christie’s reception hall the morning of the sale and see a wall full of catalogs with decoys on the cover nearly gave me goose bumps. The many dealers and collectors who stopped in all week long to preview the furniture, the silver and the weathervanes couldn’t have missed it. Over 350 decoys, all from the esteemed collection of Russell B. Aitkin, no less, were on display in one of New York City’s premiere showrooms for an entire week. Gary Guyette and Frank Schmidt were in attendance throughout the preview, a terrific opportunity to introduce newcomers to wildfowl decoys and decoratives and help explain their importance to the collecting world. Maybe even pick up a few customers for their upcoming sales. And don’t think there haven’t been some overnight converts; in the few weeks after the sale we picked up a half dozen new subscribers in Manhattan alone.

Let’s face it, this auction wasn’t McCleery. And it certainly wasn’t Mackey. Not even close to Starr or Hillman or other choice collections that have sold over the years. But it was held in New York City. And if we want decoys to in stature, particularly on an international stage, there isn’t a better place to be.