Waterfowl Festival lets collectors get their ducks in a row

November 01, 1992|By Pat Emory | Pat Emory,Contributing Writer

When the Waterfowl Festival opens in Easton Nov. 13, for its 22nd consecutive year, it will show off what is arguably the finest collection of waterfowl art, sculptures and carvings assembled anywhere in the world. Yet, many of the 18,000 visitors will have eyes only for the lesser-known ugly ducklings of the show: the working decoys.

A few of these artifacts "are spectacular. They're artwork," says Vance Strausburg, co-chairman of the Buy, Sell and Swap Shop at the festival and an avid collector. But most of the antique decoys "are not what you'd consider pretty. They're old and they've been gunned. They're artifacts," he says.

But the huge school auditorium dedicated almost exclusively to the trading of these old, worn, working decoys is where some of the biggest bucks in the show are expected to exchange hands.

When the doors of Easton High School open to the public at 10 a.m. Nov. 13th, more than 100 vendors are expected to do hundreds of thousands of dollars in business selling and trading these simple-shaped ducks and geese that once drew waterfowl into the hunter's shotgun range.

It is not unusual to see a single decoy, still in mint shape and carved by one of the master carvers, sell for more than $25,000, says Mr. Strausburg. That's more money than 90 percent of the new art at the Waterfowl Festival will command.

The Waterfowl Festival can take some credit for bringing the lowly working decoy, with its buckshot and faded paint, out of the shed and onto mantles.

Carved at a time when wooden ducks were something to shoot over in a marshy creek or on a riverside bank, then dump out back in a shed, most were simple, silhouette shapes of the real bird.

In 1971 when the Waterfowl Festival got its start, collecting old, clumsy relics of bygone hunting days was something done almost exclusively by hunters. The wooden decoy was just beginning to be replaced by plastic and cloth decoys, so the festival provided a small place for hunters to do their decoy trading.

Today, buying, selling and swapping these early survivors of the hunt is a big business no longer limited to nostalgic hunters.

"Antique decoys are now established as one of the very few American folk art forms," Mr. Strausburg says.

Consequently, a whole new group of collectors primarily interested in American folk art has taken a liking to these old birds, pushing the market price up. Mr. Strausburg says prices of antique decoys have remained strong throughout the recession, and one decoy sold for a whopping $300,000 at an auction in Maine recently.

Newcomers can expect to pay as little as $50 for an old, working decoy, but it will take about $200 to buy a collectible one, says Mr. Strausburg. A rare bird, carved by a famous maker and in mint condition, will cost in the thousands of dollars, he adds.

Would-be buyers who can't find what they want among the many vendors can try the decoy auction at 2 p.m. Saturday, Nov. 14. But even visitors with no interest in buying old decoys shouldn't miss this one.

"It's worth the price of admission just to hear the auctioneer," says Bob Frisa, co-chairman with Mr. Strausburg of the Buy, Sell and Swap Shop. Auctioneer Jim Julia of New England is not only an expert in the decoy field, but also knows how to entertain the crowd, Mr. Frisa says.

Ten percent of the proceeds from the auction go directly to waterfowl conservation projects. Like everything else at the Waterfowl Festival, the proceeds benefit the birds. In 21 years, the festival, whose sole purpose is to raise money for the conservation, protection and propagation of waterfowl and its habitat, has contributed more than $2.5 million to worthy projects along the Atlantic Flyway, around Chesapeake Bay and on the Delmarva peninsula.

The festival gives more money to waterfowl conservation than any other of its kind, thanks to an army of volunteers, including Mr. Frisa and Mr. Strausburg. More than 1,000 individuals donate their time. For some, it's just a few hours during the festival weekend, doing anything from setting up displays and creating decorations to manning information booths. But for about

dedicated volunteers, it's a part-time job that keeps them busy almost every month of the year.

Many volunteers, like Penny Dietz, started with little or no experience, but learned a lot along the way.

Mrs. Dietz had little experience with art when she volunteered as a hostess at the 1978 festival. She now holds one of the

most prestigious volunteer jobs in the show, chairing the Gold Room of the Tidewater Inn, where the most expensive art and sculptures in the show are on display. Most of the 80 artists in the Gold Room sell their art for between $700 and $7,500, but some artwork sells for up to $20,000, Mrs. Dietz says.

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