Rare, costly birds of wood

December 27, 2006|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN REPORTER

ST. MICHAELS -- Homely and slightly worn from decades of handling, the mottled wooden bird might not have gotten a second glance sitting on a flea market table.

But at an Eastern Shore auction last month, that bird soared above the rest, with a stratospheric price of $830,000 - the most ever paid for a decoy.

The identity of the winning bidder, a collector from Connecticut, is unknown. But in the growing field of decoy collecting, the auctioneer is not.

Guyette and Schmidt Inc., with offices in this Chesapeake Bay town and in Maine, has been getting top dollar for America's rarest birds, from the record-setting black-bellied plover to a preening pintail duck for $801,500 to a hissing Canada goose for $605,000.

"Without a doubt, they sell more than anyone else and have been that leading force for at least 10 years," says Joe Engers, publisher of Decoy, the nation's top magazine in the field. "They are the biggest barometer of the decoy market."

The firm is responsible for nearly three-quarters of decoy auction sales in the U.S. In two decades, Gary Guyette and Frank Schmidt have sold $95 million in wooden birds, a number that prompted Sotheby's and Christie's to join forces with them on auctions.

Prices skyrocket

"Did I think there would be a $830,000 [decoy] 30 years ago? Oh, Lord, not in my wildest dreams," Schmidt says. "In 1972, one went for $10,000, and everyone looked around and said, `He'll never make his money back.' In 2000, it sold for just under $500,000."

That wooden birds once used to lure waterfowl are now luring six-figure bids should not come as a surprise. Collectors have pushed up the value of everything from antique weather vanes (top auction price, $5.8 million) to French candlesticks ($2 million) to the oldest hockey stick ($2.2 million).

The collecting frenzy has enveloped American folk art, which includes decoys. It is becoming an increasingly active collector's field, with an October auction at Sotheby's hitting a record $7 million in sales.

"Relatively speaking, decoys are a pittance," Engers says. "All you need is three or four people bidding for the good stuff. There's a lot of pressure on the tip of the pyramid."

Guyette agrees. "Decoys are becoming more and more of an investment. Prices have doubled in the last four years and there's no end in sight."

A duck picked up at a flea market a few years back for $100 brought $42,000 at a recent auction. A carving bought in 1992 for $22,000 sold this year for $250,000.

Just as there are a handful of decoy auction houses, there are only a few carvers who pull in the big bids. Elmer Crowell, a Cape Cod carver who died in 1954, whittled the four most expensive decoys, representing $2.4 million in sales. The list includes the Ward brothers - Steve and Lem - of Crisfield, barbers who became famous as "Waterfowl Counterfeiters in Wood," as their shop sign said.

But, cautions Schmidt, even the best carvers aren't sure bets. "Some days these guys were on ... other days they came in with roaring headaches. You have a difference in quality to consider."

Other factors that could enhance the value of a decoy are its condition, the species of the bird and whether it has a distinctive pose, such as sleeping or preening, according to Guyette.

The record-setting auction at the Talbot County Community Center in Easton started with Guyette and Schmidt knowing Crowell's carving would bring in well over $500,000.

The plover is considered "exceptional," the best of three carvings used for the cover of the 1965 book American Bird Decoys. Appraisers called it "arguably the finest Crowell shorebird to come to auction."

"Anything could have happened," Guyette says.

Six people - two on phones and four in person - began the bidding. By the time the price reached $600,000, four had dropped out.

Schmidt had the Connecticut man's agent on the phone when the other bidder dropped out.

"It was exciting," he says. "I'm sure the bidder was excited, too."

But both men say they get more satisfaction when someone walks in with a carving from a barn or a flea market. "They have no idea what they have, and they're often surprised when we tell them," Schmidt says. "It happens more often than you'd think."

Several years ago, the auctioneers sold a decoy for $170,000 for a couple in Wiscasset, Maine, who used the money to pay skyrocketing property taxes. Another Maine couple watched at a Chicago auction three years ago as Guyette and Schmidt sold two birds for $180,000.

Down from Maine

"It's fun to see people who can use the money do well," Schmidt says.

The two men started their auction careers separately in Maine. Fresh out of college in the 1970s, Guyette and his wife sold a mix of antiques and decoys before switching to wooden birds exclusively in 1984. Schmidt quit teaching school in the mid-1980s to work for an auctioneer and joined forces with Guyette about a decade ago.

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