A Bird In The Hand: Million-Dollar Duck Decoys

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Duck-hunting season along coastal Massachusetts closes in a few weeks. Until then, gunners will flock to inlets and marshes wearing waders and wielding decoys.

These life-like working replicas are standard in the field. But some antique decoys stay indoors, in galleries, and fetch record-breaking prices at auction.

WBUR's Andrea Shea reports on the history of these rare wooden birds, including a million-dollar goose!


Hunters of waterfowl have a few essential tools.


Water dog.

Fake duck calls.

And then, the fake birds meant to lure ducks, and geese, into the gunner's range.

TOM LOOK: Some people put out hundreds of decoys.

Local hunter Tom Look rigs a gaggle of replicas, at sunrise, in a snowy marsh north of Boston. He's an oncologist who lives in North Reading.

LOOK: Pretty much all hunters use these very indestructible molded plastic ones and then save the wooden ones for the mantle place, you know?

Is that where yours are?

LOOK: Yeah. I have an old Ider and I think a Pintail, a couple of them. They're so expensive now. The prices have gone up astronomically.

He's not kidding.

AUCTIONEER: $55,000 now. $57,500. $60,000. At $60,000, all done?

This decoy auction took place last July in Plymouth.

AUCTIONEER: Next lot is No. 283, a wood duck drake.

Steven O'Brien was there.

O'BRIEN: Sometimes the action can get pretty heated.

He owns Steven O'Brien Arts, a Boston gallery that specializes in antique duck decoys. In 2007 he brokered a record-breaking sale of two famous birds. They fetched a jaw-dropping price.

O'BRIEN: $1.13 million a piece. One was a preening Canada Goose and one was a Preening Pintail.

That Pintail Duck previously sold in 2003 at Christie's for more than $800,000. A Chairman there called it "The most important bird in America." A rep at Sotheby's deemed the Goose "The Holy Grail" of decoys. Both the duck and the goose were made in the early 1900s by a carver named A. Elmer Crowell in East Harwich. He's widely regarded as the best decoy maker ever and his carvings are seriously collectible.

AUCTIONEER: Let's start the bidding on this Crowell at, uh, let's see it comes from a private collection in Cambridge, $20,000 dollars. $22,000. $25,000.

An exhibition of Crowell's rare birds, including his only other known Preening Pintail Duck, is now open at the Massachusetts Audubon Society in Canton. O'Brien explains what elevates the decoy to a piece of art.

I mean if you step back and look at it just as a piece of sculpture, and just forget about it even being a duck, it has a certain flow to it. I mean is starts back at the tail, your eye wraps around to the breast, it wraps up around the head and then goes back around.

GIGI HOPKINS: Look at the mastery, look at that! Each one of those feathers is ash colored and it's got white dots on the edging.

Gigi Hopkins co-curated this show. She's a decoy conservator, and a bird carver herself, and is giddy over having the chance to work on the sister of Crowell's famous million dollar Goose. The sibling is here in Canton, behind glass, and has never been displayed in public.

HOPKINS: That lived on my bed for two weeks while I cleaned it for its new owner, and I slept on the floor in my sleeping bag because it's quite a valuable bird.

As it turns out, Hopkins grew up with Crowell decoys, which, at the time, could be bought for 10, 20, 30 dollars. She's 70 now, and her father owned a gunning camp in Orleans. Crowell himself hunted on the Cape, before becoming a recognized artist.

HOPKINS: He was born during a period where there was tremendous migrations of waterfowl that were moving through.

Again, Steven O'Brien.

O'BRIEN: And as a young boy starting at the age of 14, he actually started making a living killing waterfowl to be then brought to market. A lot of these birds would be sold at the top hotels.

Crowell also made money as a hired guide to wealthy sportsman. They admired his hunting skills, and his artistry. Some commissioned decoys for their mantle pieces. Around 1918 Crowell switched from making working decoys to making decorative ones, full-time. The tourist trade on the Cape was growing and led to great demand for his work. Also, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act became federal law. Gigi Hopkins says that's when the decorative carving genre really took off.

HOPKINS: Because market gunning decimated shorebirds. Eskimow Curlew, gone, Godwits gone, Golden Plover, gone, waterfowl have never recovered, and that's why all the legislation came saving the birds.

Crowell's career paralleled the burgeoning conservation movement. He went from gunner to artist and wildlife educator. The Mass Audubon Society was created for the same reasons around the same time. But still, there is a certain irony in the fact that the society is hosting a show of decoys that were used for killing the creatures it protects. Amy Montague sees the irony too. She directs the society's Visual Arts Center and has this response.

MONTAGUE: I think people often jump to the conclusion that there's hunters on one side and conservationists on another, and that's not true. Often people who are hunters are the people who spend much time in the outdoors and really appreciate the importance of preserving habitats. So there's a lot in common and often you find people who are both.

Duck Decoy expert Steve O'Brien is both. He mentions Ducks Unlimited, an organization many hunters support to protect nesting grounds and migratory paths for waterfowl. He says Elmer Crowell's hunting past and decoys are an important part of America's history, and that makes them valuable as well. There was a time, he says, when that history could've been lost.

O'BRIEN: It's amazing how many antique decoys ended up in the wood burning stove.

Back out in the marsh hunter Tom Look says he doesn't have any million dollar Crowell decoys. But, he adds, you never know.

LOOK: I think people are still finding them in attics and stuff.

So, if you've had any hunters in your family, it might be worth taking a look.

And this note: in a some what controversial move the historical commission in Harwich recently approved the dismantling of Elmer Crowell's workshop to move it to the nearby town of Sandwich.

This program aired on January 12, 2009.

Headshot of Andrea Shea

Andrea Shea Correspondent, Arts & Culture
Andrea Shea is a correspondent for WBUR's arts & culture reporter.



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