Duck decoy artists convert cedar to gold

Artifacts are sought by hunting buffs and folk art enthusiasts

April 08, 2001|By Michael Cooper | Michael Cooper,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

SOUTHOLD, N.Y. -- At first the wooden decoys were simply a means to an end -- primitive carvings just convincing enough to lure Long Island's ducks and shorebirds into the sights of hunters. Over the years, though, the outdoorsmen who fashioned them from blocks of cedar and cork grew more sophisticated, learning to evoke the anatomy of the birds they carved and growing more adept at applying oil-paint plumage.

Then, as the 20th century dawned on Long Island, commercial hunting was outlawed, a new environmental awareness brought stricter regulations on hunting for sport, suburbia tamed the wilds, and the decoys outlived their usefulness as tools.

"A lot of those decoys wound up as kindling, burned in the fireplaces and wooden stoves of bay houses," said Jack Combs, 65, who comes from a family of baymen who trace their Long Island roots to 1644. "No one thought of taking the birds and saying, `I want to preserve the heritage.' No one thought they'd be worth a lot of money."

Decoy fetches $464,500

How times have changed. Last year a Long Island decoy sold at an auction at Sotheby's for $464,500. It was Lot 207, a long-billed curlew carved in the late 19th century by a master carver named William Bowman. The auction catalog cautioned that it had "a few light shot marks."

"There is no price for that decoy," said the winning bidder, a 63-year-old collector from New Jersey who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he did not want to attract attention to himself or his decoy collection. "Who is to say what the value is? It really has a throne in the decoy world unto itself."

Decoys these days are sought after by hunting buffs, folk art enthusiasts, compulsive collectors and nature lovers. There are even decoy speculators.

"Some people view them as investments, like stocks," said Gary Guyette, a partner at Guyette & Schmidt, an auction house in Maine that conducted the auction with Sotheby's. "They hire advisers who go to shows to help them choose birds."

The auction at Sotheby's netted nearly $11 million and interest in decoys is thriving. Recently, Guyette joined collectors and traders from around the region at the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association's show at the Knights of Columbus Hall in Patchogue.

Perhaps it is not too surprising that the birds, known to baymen here as stool (as in stool pigeon) have exploded in value. This, after all, was not art to be kept behind glass in cool, dry rooms. It was sculpture crafted decades and decades ago to be thrown into salt water and the line of fire. The well-preserved specimen is rare indeed.

Unlike the baymen who founded the association 30 years ago, its current president, Mel Phaff, 62, does not hunt. "I couldn't kill a thing," he said with a laugh. "I'm a former shop teacher, and I fell in love with the workmanship."

He built up a collection, and has transformed the hallway leading to his bedroom into something of a small decoy museum.

Mallards and yellowlegs and mergansers perch in floor-to-ceiling glass cases, a flock of shorebirds stands above his writing desk, a reproduction of an Egyptian painting of a duck-hunting Pharaoh hangs on the wall.

`Pieces of history'

"They are pieces of history," he said.

That is just what Joshua Ruff, the history curator at the Long Island Museum, is trying to get across in the museum's newly revamped exhibit, "The Baymen's Art: Wildfowl Decoys of Long Island."

It evokes an era when baymen lived off the land and the waters, and market gunners, as the commercial hunters here were known, used decoys to shoot vast numbers of birds and took them to the Fulton and Washington Street markets in Lower Manhattan, where they were sold to restaurants like Delmonico's.

Others shot terns for milliners, who used their feathers to adorn the Victorian hats favored by Gibson girls.

Then there were the sports, as the wealthy industrialists from New York City who came to Long Island to hunt for pleasure were called. They often hired local baymen as their guides, and paid them to carve decoys for weekend hunts.

Eventually the hunters, both the market gunners and the sports, were victims of their own success, and excess. Species were shot until they were endangered, or extinct. Hundreds of ducks could be killed in a day.

Audubon societies formed at the turn of the century to protect the birds, and the state began passing ever-stricter laws governing recreational hunting.

Era ended in 1918

The era of market gunning came to an end in 1918, when Congress passed the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which banned the commercial hunting of wildfowl. From then on diners who savored Long Island duck had to be satisfied with farm-raised birds.

The decoys fell into disuse, but slowly caught the eyes of collectors.

In 1934 one of the first books on the subject, "Wild Fowl Decoys," was published by Joel Barber. Another enthusiast, William Mackey Jr., wrote his own book in 1965 and amassed quite a collection -- including the Bowman curlew sold at auction last year.

After Mackey died, the curlew fetched $10,500 at auction in 1973, setting a record and astounding the decoy-collecting world.

"That started it all," said Jackson Parker, 80, who has attended every major auction over three decades and written about them for publications such Decoy Magazine as the birds sold for five, and then six figures.

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