Decoys, duck calls lure dollars at Shore auction

October 03, 1993|By William Thompson | William Thompson,Staff Writer

SALISBURY -- No real duck ever coveted a decoy this much.

A rare mallard drake carved and painted by renowned Chincoteague decoy maker Ira Hudson -- who most likely sold the bird for a couple of dollars when he made it 60 years ago -- fetched $25,300 yesterday at an auction to benefit Salisbury's Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art.

The previous evening, during a surprisingly brisk bidding war for old duck and goose calls, a wooden call made by an Illinois carver around the turn of the century brought a hammer price of $15,000.

With the auctioneer's customary 10 percent commission, the carving, by a man known only as Glodo, went for $16,500, believed to be a world record for a waterfowl call.

The original purpose of the decoys and calls was to lure live birds within shooting range, but now the wooden ones attract a growing number of collectors, many of whom see the items as one of the few authentic forms of American folk art.

"Very few people in the world know about this art form," said Vaughn Baker, the Ward Museum's executive director. "It belongs to us, and more people should be aware of it."

Mr. Baker said museum officials, who sponsored the two-day auction and art show with auctioneer Richard Oliver, hope interest in waterfowl carving continues to spread.

The museum opened last year in a new $5.3 million building on the banks of Schumaker Pond here. Named after brothers Lem and Steve Ward, the late carving and painting team from Crisfield, the museum houses wildfowl art worth nearly $2 million.

Mr. Baker said that the museum attracted 30,000 visitors its first year, half the number he says are needed to keep it financially sound. Noting that more people came from foreign countries than from the Delmarva Peninsula, Mr. Baker said local residents tend to take the art of decoy-carving for granted.

"This is our heritage, but we don't appreciate it like we should," he said.

Decoy-collecting reached what many observers thought was its heyday in the 1970s and 1980s, when prices for many carvings by the best-known makers reached extraordinary heights.

While few decoys ever come close to the $319,000 sale of an Elmer Crowell decoy by Mr. Oliver in 1986, many carvings have traded hands for tens of thousands of dollars.

Yesterday's bidding action surprised collectors and dealers, who had feared that a troubled economy would make buyers conservative.

"I'm astounded," said William H. Purnell Jr., a longtime collector who lives in Ocean City. "I thought with all the money problems this country has had, prices would be down. I don't understand it, but I'm thrilled."

Tommy O'Connor, a Virginia peanut broker who started collecting hunting artifacts more than two decades ago, said the two-day auction demonstrated that old decoys and calls are still in demand.

"The market is strong," he said. "Good birds are bringing high prices, and the fact that someone paid $15,000 for a call shows that some collectors are willing to step out and spend some serious money."

Capt. Harry R. Jobes, who at age 57 is a longtime carver, said decoy-collecting grew in popularity when hunters realized that mass production and synthetic materials took some of the romance out of the sport.

"To handle a wooden decoy and watch it in the water is altogether different than buying a piece of plastic and throwing it overboard," he said.

Still, the public's eagerness to pay thousands of dollars for wooden decoys baffles the Aberdeen carver, who sold his pieces for $2.50 each 28 years ago.

"I never thought that I was making folk art," he said. "I was just carving decoys."

While scores of collectors traveled from out of state to bid in person, the highest bidders, including those who bought the Hudson decoy and the Glodo call, made their purchases by phone.

On the surface, the crowd of collectors was casual and friendly. But for some, the bidding took on a hard competitive edge.

"All these guys look at ease on the outside," said one auction veteran. "Inside, they just want to outbid the other guy into the ground."

One bidder said he wanted a pair of decoys he had owned once, but lost in his divorce.

"I want those birds back with a vengeance," he said. "I want to be able to call her up and say I've got them again."

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