Collecting Antique Hunting DecoysCollectable, vintage hunting decoys are antiques, highly prized for their craftsmanship, rarity or folk art attraction. Most collectors would agree that condition is of the utmost importance: is the paint all original?; have there been any repairs or touch-ups?; is the wooden body structurally sound?; have the head, bill or even the glass eyes been replaced? Original condition is the big key, and the closer it is to mint, the better. An 'investment quality' decoy's value diminishes as its originality is lost or altered. Re-painting or repairing can subtract much of its worth. Conversely, an absolutely mint decoy can be astronomically greater in value, even well beyond that of one in very good or near-mint shape. Be sure to look carefully and ask detailed questions before you buy. It is only very rarely that anything as old and well-used as a hunting decoy which has survived 100 years (give or take) can still be found in immaculate condition. If it is, it must have been held back as a 'mantle bird'. Ask the seller why it has no marks. Honest wear is usually to be expected with most decoys; a few scratches, shot marks and dings are the norm. However, if you see paint covering the shot marks or dings, the decoy has likely been re-painted and is often of lesser value than had it not. Look for uniform wear overall; it is very questionable to find wear in one portion but not another. Ask yourself whether you could be looking at a repro which has been faked to look old; or whether an older, damaged part of the item may have been repaired and touched up to make the whole bird look more presentable and appealing.
Millions upon millions of hunting decoys have been made over the years. Many old time carvers made and sold them for extra pocket money, often getting only $2 a piece, maybe $50 for a dozen if they were good and "in demand". What makes some of them worth so much more today than others? Is it all just in the eye of the collector? What makes grown men and women bid frantically and spend thousands to buy a small chunk of painted wood that some carver or factory made to fire shotguns over? Some of these things even got more shot up than the live birds they were meant to attract! Please note that I have just referred to 'carvers' and 'factories'. Not all old hunting decoys were made by individual carvers; many were replicated 'en masse' by factories using duplicating machines (lathes) which could turn out numerous blocks at the same time. A lot of this took place during the 'heyday' of market gunning, roughly 1880 to 1920, when large numbers of waterfowl were slaughtered to feed the demand of restaurant patrons craving fresh-killed wild duck, etc.
Rarity of any item contributes to value; decoys are no exception. Given that some decoys date back as far as the mid to late-1800's, certain examples or species made by a carver may be few in number. They will be more highly sought after with higher prices resulting. Most carvers created decoys which reflected the different species according to predominance in their local area; more of some, fewer of others. Prices for a teal or wood duck (usually more colorful and less numerous) may be much higher than say for a bluebill or black duck (less colorful and often made in greater numbers). That is, makers' individual decoys carry their own intrinsic values; not all black ducks, for example, by the same carver are worth the same amount. You need to become familiar with the current market price scale or standard for the various carvers, and then for the relative values within the scope of different decoys they produced. Market prices fluctuate; carvers may be highly sought one year, then fall out of favor, only to return again later on. Get to know the market trends. Opinions on decoy quality and value are hotly debated; private sale prices (outside of auctions) are usually negotiated, even between friends. Consult auction sales records where you can find price histories/trends for most carvers and regional styles. Do your homework first; window shop and compare before you buy. Ask established collectors; most are only too willing to welcome new members to the decoy collecting fraternity.
Condition, paint quality and form, or sculptural beauty, are three things most often looked at first by top collectors. Being able to identify the carver or maker is important, but not essential. Many decoys achieve value because they were made by a carver whose reputation was very highly regarded, like an Elmer Crowell or a Joe Lincoln in the US, perhaps a George Warin or Jack Wells from Canada. However, even unknown decoys have achieved very high auction values; having an identifiable maker is not crucial. Many makers never signed their work; most brands or names on the bottoms of decoys are those of the owners, not makers. Decoys can be grouped according to regional carving patterns or styles. The better carvers generally influenced others located nearby or were copied by them.
Be warned: decoy collecting is highly addictive. Many serious collectors began by buying one simple, cheap bird, then jumped in and gathered everything they could find. Almost overnight, every shelf becomes crammed and you soon own a hundred or more. Then, most of us get a bit more realistic, especially when spouses complain about being crowded out of their homes. We rein in, become a little more discriminating and choose a carver, a style, a region to concentrate on. We downsize, clear the shelves and set out to seriously collect "a few" examples of the better stuff.