Antiques

Learning From Experts About Shore’s Traditional Decoys

By RAY deTHY | May 14, 2012
Ryan Morrill

Although we have bought and sold decoys and shore birds during the 12 years we have lived and worked in New Jersey, we unfortunately never had spent the time to understand the significance of “carved birds” to the history and tradition of South Jersey.

As noted last month, we bought a large private collection of shore-related items, including many local-region carved pieces. Several weeks later, we had another opportunity to buy similar examples from the western United States. The last three months for the Verde Antiques staff could best be described as five people with hundreds of wooden birds enveloping their legs up to right below their waists.

As always, we did “due diligence” research before buying both collections. Since none of us had significant knowledge regarding the nuances of “duckdom,” we (especially, my wife, Ginny) contacted, visited and talked to many decoy devotees, collectors and carvers. As a result, we are minimally able to offer some help to those who wish to buy parts of these collections as we describe and offer them to the public. Our store is small, and it will take several months or more before all pieces are presented for sale.

Today’s column is a brief attempt to share with you what we learned from many helpful contacts who willingly offered their time and enthusiasm to a point where we believe we have new friends as well as experts on our subject.

If any of you would like to know more than the few words that I am going to write today about the history and details of past and present gunning and decorative decoys, there are two reference books that deal primarily with these interests in the bay regions of New Jersey as well as the Delaware River Valley environs. They are New Jersey Decoys by Henry A. Fleckstein Jr., published by Schiffer Publishing, Exton, Pa.; and Working Decoys of the Jersey Coast and Delaware Valley by Kenneth Gosner, published by the Art Alliance Press of Philadelphia.

Very Brief Local History

For many years, up to the 1950s, gunning and fishing were a large part of commerce and recreational opportunities on the Jersey Shore. Many locals were involved in these activities, acting as guides as well as providing accessories to support visitors’ sporting vacations. There were many individual carvers of decoys – both images of ducks hunted, and those of gulls and the like which were used as “confidence” decoys, which I will discuss below.

Interesting Vignettes

From the various meetings, consultations and reading, I found that there is almost an “underground” of information that is shared among the local “duck” insiders – frequently oral, not often written. Here are some of them:

1. Many early (and very expensive today) items were not signed. There is a kind of “hand-me-down” provenance that identifies them.

2. There are numerous family carvers that include as many as five generations and heaven knows how many extended family members.

3. Starting in the latter part of the 20th century, many carvers signed their product either with name or logo.

4. During the same time period (and earlier), the signature or logo was frequently that of the owner/hunter of the decoys – at the conclusion of a day on the water, each hunter could gather his pieces by name or logo.

5. The popularity of decoys/shore birds has led many carvers in the last 20 to 30 years to carve folk art pieces in addition to producing working ducks.

6.a. The ducks from various regions have become identified, in part, by construction peculiarities – e.g., South Jersey decoys are likely to be hollow, with carved halves glued together.

6.b. Delaware River decoys tend to have “high sitting” tails and a differentiation between top-end feathers and tail proper.

6.c. Other regions have different constructions (I don’t have enough room or knowledge for others).

7. Varying “experts” can identify a carver by his personal peculiarities: a. artistic style; b. shape of body (square, flat, etc.); c. painting artistry (in some cases, it’s unique enough to be treated as a “signature.”

8. Birds that are not hunted are frequently carved to be used as “confidence” decoys – that is, to convince the hunted birds to believe “ all is safe” for them because gulls, swans and/or shore birds are lolling about, so, no danger.

The West Coast carver whose personally used ducks I bought several years ago swears that confidence decoys are better than specific-genre hunted birds’ wooden “look-a-like” in attracting any hunted duck.

9. Last, my discussions with several dozen experts, carvers and collectors indicate that there are significantly different beliefs and perceptions about the identity of unsigned ducks, the value of signed and unsigned pieces, and collectibility of same.

It’s basically no different than with most antique and collectible items, but the decoy community seems to me to be more oral and personal in its assessments and valuations rather than written and formal.

P.S. Ginny and I have had the most fun learning about decoys and meeting with various local ambassadors of bay hunting and fishing experiences than any other researching we’ve ever done.

Ray deThy is the owner of Verde Antiques and Rare Books and Verde Appraisal Service, both in Manahawkin. He has been an appraiser since 1985.

 

VALUES & TIPS

The photographs today are a random selection of a variety of items that show the breadth of the collection.

A fine Jersey hollow carved Canada Goose – great paint – unsigned.

Pair of well-executed and painted, hollow carved Mergansers – one signed D. Rhodes Absecon and the other signed J. Hamilton.

Unsigned heavy solid carved Owl.

Unsigned hollow carved Brant marked with 8 and S.

Arctic Tern c. 1920 – probably Long Island, N.Y.

Pair of mini sneakboats replete with ducks and accessories.

Pair of shore birds – one signed and painted by Charles R. Birdsall and a Herter’s Black Belly Plover.

Diving tail signed by Donald Metzger Jr.

Unsigned Bufflehead – good condition.

Pair of birds with detailed carving and fine painting: Brant etch-signed Eppie Falkenburg, Parkertown, NJ 1983; and unsigned mini Wood Duck.

The expert consultations that we have had indicated that there are no very valuable examples in the collection overall. The consensus was that 80 percent of the items should retail for $100 to $125 each. Some few would be higher, and many of them (especially shore birds) would be lower. We have heeded the advice and have priced accordingly.

Anyone who wishes to add information or criticism will be welcomed.

If you have an item you would like to have considered for a future “Values & Tips” segment, e-mail particulars and a photo(s) to ray@verdeantiquesandrarebooks.com or mail to Verde Antiques and Rare Books, 73 East Bay Ave., Manahawkin, N.J. 08050. Also include a telephone contact. Material submitted will not be returned, whether it is published or not.

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