Antique collectors may have different interests when it comes to the items they hunt for. A peculiar and not so familiar antique object is the duck decoy, with its long and captivating history.
As a matter of fact, dedicated shows, auctions, and conventions across the U.S. and worldwide are committed to this art, and passionate people are exchanging impressive amounts of money to satisfy their hobby.
A duck decoy may be worth lots of money, whether it has been mass-produced, with exquisite realistic details, or manufactured by carvers hundreds of years ago. Passionate collectors know how to identify these markings, but those new in this domain might have struggles learning to recognize antique duck decoys.
Sometimes, it takes years of study. But if you are really interested in the matter. In that case, you can learn to check the key features and spot those specific elements of an antique duck decoy.
This guide will take you through all the essential tips, and information one needs to complete their antique collection.
Duck Decoys History
So what are duck decoys, first of all, and where is their popularity coming from? A long time before English colonists entered America, Native Americans made these birds and other animals decoys for hunting purposes.
The primary materials were mud and carcasses to conjure the outlines of these winged creatures. Later on, colonists started to imitate this technique and build upon the colonists’ hunting tactic.
Starting in the mid-19th century and going to the early-20th, the building and usage of painted, hollow, wooden, or solid duck, shorebird, and goose decoys became a true fashion. Most bird hunters used this special method in their hunting process.
While huntsmen today do not use duck decoys due to the modern technology and materials, these items are now considered genuine antique and vintage articles. Hence auction houses and antique affairs are buying and selling these magnificent works that belong to folk art.
Who Started The Duck Decoy Collection Trend?
Duck decoys were not so popular among collectors until de mid-20th century. However, the market first started with small niche passionate groups in the United States. Beginning with the 1950s, these enthusiasts began collecting old, antique duck decoys. Everything changed, and the antique market exploded when Han Sorenson of Burlington published “The Decoy Collector’s Guide” magazine.
Suddenly, due to this magazine number, people got crazily excited and started realizing the meaning and value of collectible duck decoys. People were sending information about their items and began an unprecedented communication movement. Soon after that, decoy shows and affairs started being organized all over the country.
What Makes Duck A Decoy Truly Valuable?
Today’s market is in continuous change, and the same happens with antiquities. Birds of wooden feathers might not always flock together. Therefore, it is pretty hard to predict how much money they are worth and determine the final price.
These are the factors that determine a duck’s decoy value:
1. The Maker
Some manufacturers are more worthy in terms of money than others, as we mentioned in the “Äntique Duck Decoy Types” chapter.
The prices also range by region. For instance, Long Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and New England are areas that have specific key elements, decoy types, and collectors.
3. Decoy species
There are many different decoys species – from geese to ducks, shorebirds, and many more. Shorebirds, for instance, are rarer because that type of hunting dates back to 1928. Therefore, the prices might go higher. But specialists say that most passionate collectors will go for antique duck and goose decoys.
Besides their provenience and makers, the condition of duck decoys is also a major factor in affecting their value. Antique decoys are so valuable because a significant percentage of them have been repainted during the years or parts have been replaced.
Those in best condition will sell for higher prices. According to specialists, most decoys in a perfect state can be worth a fortune.
Unique models are more likely to value more than mass-produced ones. One of the rarest species ever is the Mason Factory wood duck, which had the highest grade for about $650,000. (here is an example of their work )
6. Strength of maker attribution
Are there any particular features the maker has attributed to the wood ducks? If the answer is yes, then you might deal with unique duck decoy models that value a lot.
There are many variations in duck decoy designs, shapes, and sizes. More extensive models have higher chances to value more.
However, professional collectors claim that sometimes it does not matter if there is a factory or handmade decoy in terms of price. So, expect the market to change and recalculate its principles.
Duck Decoy Makers, Regions, And Types
Are you ready for more information? Because we are just scratching the surface. So let’s move on.
The Mason Decoy Company was the most popular and successful commercial maker of gunning decoys. The manufacturer has sold its products worldwide, while the production pattern was quite similar:
- Made out of cedar
- Lathe patterned
- Pleasing forms
- Hand-painted in elaborate and realistic shades
- Easy to identify
Some of the finest decoys manufactured by Mason Decoys were Mason Premier Grade and Challenge Grade. These models had detailed paint patterns and were mainly hollow-carved, with flat bottoms. Their bodies are solids and time-resistant.
But Mason Company did not stop to only these models but also offered Standard Grade Decoys for a middle budget.
For instance, the painted eye decoy was the lowest Standard Grade and was smaller but more solid. However, the painted details were quite rudimentary, translating to smaller prices.
Mason Decoys also produced a full line of shorebird decoys, divided into two categories: Tackeye and Glasseye. These models were more prominent in size, with solid bodies and iron nail bills.
The earliest models had wooden accounts, though. The whole process of making these glasseye patterns was more elaborate than ever before.
Duck Decoys By Region
- Canadian carvers were producing wooden decoys for waterfowl hunting. Their techniques led to some of the finest decoys ever made.
- Antique decoys from the Ontario area were hollow-carved and had flat bottom boards. On the other hand, Quebec decoys were more solid and had feather-carved ornaments.
- The Chesapeake Bay was a leader in terms of production. Therefore, manufacturers from here were producing vast quantities of decoys. Those were mainly made of solid cedar with a heavy body and poured lead weights. Look at this massive model of Chesapeake Bay duck decoy.
- Illinois River decoys were more hollow-carved and had elaborate paint patterns to best resemble the genuine birds.
- Many antique duck decoy models come from the New Jersey area, a popular source for hunting. Most of these duck decoys have simple patterns, perhaps due to the fresh waters in that environment.
- Last but not least, New England was by far one of the most abundant sources of duck decoys due to the rick waterfowling area. Huntsman here needed huge varieties of decoys for both individual and commercial use. Hence the decoy models reflected the type of water duck that was easiest to find and hunt. The bodies were solid, while the details were most delicate.
Other Important Factories
It was not only Mason Decoy Company that had a monopoly on the duck decoy market. Some commercial decoy factories preceded the famous name, and many others followed. Factory Decoys in original condition and paint are also highly collectible today.
Types Of Duck Decoy
As you know by now, duck decoys are representations or replicas of real birds used back in the days by hunters, easing their job, especially during the winter months.
This being said, when attending antique affairs, expect to find:
How To Evaluate Antique Duck Decoys?
You might struggle to find genuine antique decoys if you are new in the duck decoy collectors’ niche. As long as you keep in mind some simple tips, the process will actually be simple.
1. Handle the duck decoy and start the slow and careful inspection.
Antique items should look and feel old in your hands. Check the paint and wood consistency, as well as the whole pattern. Do you notice bullet holes, cracks, or tiny chips? Then you might deal with an antique. Conversely, it is unlikely to be vintage if the paint looks new.
2. Inspect the eyes.
Most antique duck decoys have glass eyes.
3. Check the bottom of the decoy.
Some manufacturers have carved their initials or signature and mentioned the date of manufacture. Factory-made decoys would always say this information onto a metal tag placed on the bottom of the wood decoy.
4. Study specialized books on these subjects.
Compare the pictures in the book with your items and try to find similarities. Experts in antiques recommend these three sources in particular: “American Bird Decoys,” “The Art Of Decoy,” and “Wild Fowl Decoys.”
Identifying antique duck decoys is a form of art. Hence you should study the historical pieces and attend hunting shows, antique decoy auctions or talk to expert collectors.
Specialized forums are also a great source of information. Inspect as much as you can to learn the main subtle characteristics to look for in antique duck decoys.
Check these videos for valuing tips:
Buy And Sell Antique Duck Decoys
If you are interested in buying and selling antique duck decoys and prefer the mainstream online platforms, check these sources:
Check the wide range of vintage and antique duck decoys on eBay. Make sure you pay attention to the seller’s activity and credibility, considering there are lots of replicas out on the market.
Get the top deals from trustworthy sellers. Etsy is one of the best online sources for genuine antiques. The wide range of products and prices is the most significant benefit.
The Ultimate Guideline To Antique Duck Decoy Collectors
What should a collector focus on when looking for an antique duck decoy?
- Determine what you enjoy seeing in your collection and focus on the style, origin, and the carver you are passionate about.
- Choose quality over quantity and define the construction method you are interested in. Look for original paints if you search for genuine antiques.
- The ideal alternative to antique duck decoys is vintage or contemporary carver’s work if your budget is low.
- Distinguish a collection from an investment. Not all passionate can collect $10,000 decoys and make this type of investment. If you are a novice, consider collecting more cheap decoys.
- You have a collection, but how can you maintain its value? Try to keep the objects away from the sun and dust. Avoid touching the items too much, as skin grease may affect the colors.
- Avoid repainting, treating, and varnishing the antique decoys. Professional collectors recommend cleaning the antiques with a simple cloth.
- Keep records of all your collectible items. Make sure you write down your antique history, value, and previous owners.
- Consider a decoy collection insurance. Some items might be irreplaceable to you, so think about a fine art policy.
Last but not least, let’s see what are the most frequently asked questions about duck decoys.
Q: Are old antique duck decoys worth the money?
A: Yes, they are genuine collection pieces. Considering the manufacturing of duck decoys started in the early part of the 20th century, it is easier to understand why hunting and antique passionates look for this kind of piece.
However, those repainted or repaired might not be as worthy as those in perfect condition. Hence the price ranges will differ. If you want to have precious items in your collection, pay attention only to those worthy sellers, as the market is full of replicas.
Q: What was the most expensive duck decoy ever sold?
A: The most expensive duck decoy was sold at an auction park in Shropshire, UK, in 2021. The buyer spent $2,400 for this piece.
Q: What Are Duck Decoys Made Of?
A: Ages ago, duck decoys were historically manufactured of Atlantic white cedarwood (especially on the east coast of the US) or cork.
On the other hand, more modern types were made of canvas and plastic. Artists paid more and more attention to details, so the painting started being more elaborate and accurate. This way, the decoys could resemble various kinds of waterfowl birds, and the hunting process is much simple.
Q: What duck decoys are worth the money the most?
A: These are the duck decoy models that represent a fortune in any collector’s portfolio:
- Lothrop Holmes, Red-Breasted Merganser Hen Carving
- Graves Mallards
- The Crowell Bundle
- The Wilson Merganser Drake Duck Decoy
Q: Do duck decoys attract ducks?
A: No wonder hunters were using duck decoys to attract real birds. Adding life-like decoys around the water was an effective method to attract birds to the pond. Since ducks will always feel safer in groups, the more decoys the hunters added to the water and around waterfalls, the more likely they were to attract their next prey.
Q: How can you wash duck decoys?
A: Antique duck decoys are very sensitive to any external factor (humidity, sun exposure, etc.). If you need to wash them, use only water, never soap. Most soaps contain ultraviolet brighteners, which will affect the color shades and make duck decoys look unnatural.
Q: Who are antique duck decoy collectors?
A: Most antique duck decoy collectors are usually waterfowl hunters that cherish the heritage of past waterfowl hunting techniques. Therefore, they look for wood, cork, or canvas antique duck decoys.
On the other hand, some collectors have never hunted but appreciate this kind of art for functionality and form. For sure, antique duck decoy collectors will always appreciate the beauty of these pieces or simply carry the nostalgia of antique creations.
For people interested in collecting antique duck decoys, these items are as valuable as any other antique pieces. Finding original ones might not look like an easy job, but as you can see, you just need to follow a few simple steps and learn how to create a beautiful collection.