RECORD! An Earnest-Gregory Dovetailed Goose Commands $810,000 and Several Auction Records at Copley

A full profile view of the record-setting Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy.

During the summer, when auction schedules slow down, The Hot Bid showcases world auction records.

What you see: The Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose, a decoy that dates to circa 1870 and bears the name of two of its past owners as its creator is unknown. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2018 for $810,000, setting a record for a goose decoy and a record for a decoy by an anonymous maker.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Ok, I’m starting with what might be an impudent question. The decoy depicts a Canada goose. In the 21st century, I know these birds as pests. Why did hunters in the late 19th century go after them? Were they pests then, too? Did they eat them? Was it both? Geese are good table fare. There’s a lot of meat on each bird. They’re great sporting game and they’re fun to hunt. The modern frustrations with the geese are just that–trouble with residential geese. Historically, geese were held in high regard and decoy-makers held them in high regard. Top goose-makers had fun with the head positions. You get a tremendous amount of variation from top goose makers. Geese are still celebrated by sportsmen and hunters today.

The goose decoy is named in part for Adele Earnest, the collector who sourced it and its two sibling decoys in 1954. Did she leave any notes about how she discovered the trio? She mentioned that she got them in Columbia, Pennsylvania. If there were details, they weren’t particularly telling on who made them and what the circumstances were. The fact that she remembered the town and the year is above the standard then in terms of collecting. And in collecting communities, there’s a lot of confidentiality about where something is sourced. A lot of times, collectors don’t divulge all the details of their finds.

Have any other decoys by this anonymous maker turned up? There are three geese known by this maker. Adding to that are a number of shorebirds that have the dovetail construction. Some of them were found in Massachusetts, and some believe the geese are from Massachusetts because of the shorebird find. Not until they were X-rayed could we be sure they were made by the same maker. The intricate techniques and specific materials used in construction identify them as being by the same maker.

No one else uses dovetail construction on their decoys? The dovetail construction is virtually unseen in any other decoy.

The Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy, with its head removed from the neck slot to show the unusual dovetail construction.

And the trail on the trio of decoys is completely cold? They were made as tools, and as such, were not signed as works of art. As tools, their value sunk to almost zero when plastic decoys entered the field. Only when they were recontextualized as found art did they have value again. When they were tools without a job, no one kept notes. It’s not uncommon for decoys to lose their entire history. At this point, the trail is cold unless the history is contained within the objects themselves.

Collector Stewart Gregory bought two of the three decoys from Earnest. Where is the third? Number three is in the Jerry Lauren collection. He has the other one.

Why did Gregory buy only two of the three? We don’t know the specifics, but it is unusual for collectors to acquire duplicates, of geese especially. Gregory was actually breaking with collecting norms by acquiring two geese with the same head position. It’s a testimony to his incredible excitement. With duck decoys, you have hens and drakes. Sexual dimorphism encourages collecting them in pairs. Shorebirds are small enough to keep two or three together. The exception is to have two geese in identical form.

Adele Earnest said the trio of goose decoys prompted her “subsequent devotion to the decoy as an art.” Donal C. O’Brien Jr., who had dozens of elite decoys, considered this one “the finest bird in his collection,” and “the best of the two” Gregory geese. What makes this decoy so great? This decoy strikes me as a complete object, purely from a visual sense. It will satisfy you from 100 yards away and when you have it in your hand. As a complete work of art in craftsmanship, it leaves virtually no room for improvement. I would add that as a decoy, it has impeccable provenance, and what I consider a perfect amount of gunning wear.

Gunning wear means it was “shot over”? Hunters fired their guns over the decoy in pursuit of live birds? Yes. As a tool for attracting birds, it was used in the water. It was used and abused as any decoy would be over [hunting] seasons.

What can we infer about the maker of this decoy by looking at it? When I see a piece like this, I see an incredibly talented craftsman who has a few audiences. Number one is the birds he’s trying to attract. Number two is the customer. Number three is their own standards and the ideas they may have about creating objects that live up to the talents they’re endowed with and should share. Some of these makers had a work ethic that was tied to their religion. They felt they had a duty to make the best object they could with their hands. They see themselves as having god-given talents they’re obliged to use to the fullest. That’s the idea. It’s evidenced when you look at the parts that are not seen by the bird or the hunter.

Detail of the carved tail of the record-setting Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy.

You mean details that only show up on X-rays–a technology that did not exist when we think this decoy was made? I’ve looked at a thousand decoy X-rays. There’s a strong connection between the level of craftsmanship on the outside of the bird and the level of craftsmanship on the inside. There’s an almost perfect correlation, makers holding their own personal standards.

What other things can you tell about the maker? Looking at its surface alone, I can identify half a dozen different painting techniques, which is unusual for decoys. You’re looking at a competent, well-trained artisan who paints well. He doesn’t labor over it. And that’s just the paint. The hollow body is meticulously hollowed, and the decoy has one of the most sophisticated head-to-neck transitions of any decoy. It has a nice finish, which is more challenging, but also can be more rewarding to the viewer and [can] show the most competent craftsmen at work. You can sand out a lot of mistakes. This person left it clean and crisp because he got it right the first time. The competence of the carving has led people to believe or wonder if it was made by a professional carousel carver, but nobody has lined up a carousel carving with this particular bird.

And we can be confident that the anonymous 19th-century maker is male? It’s far outside of precedent to be a woman. There are no documented female carvers [from that era, but you have to] consider that it possibly could have been a female painter. There’s a lot of collaborative effort in decoys.

What is your favorite detail on this decoy? My favorite thing about the bird is its totality. There’s no other decoy as satisfying from so many perspectives as this one, to me. But it’s probably the way the bird is hollowed out very intricately by hand to create the most stable, lightweight, and durable decoy possible. He’s doing work that no one is going to see.

It’s only going to show up on an X-ray? Only you at Copley will see it? [Laughs] Yes. The only people who’ll see it are the people at Copley, the clients, and the people who come to my X-ray talks.

Does the dovetail base on this goose decoy offer the hunter an advantage? The dovetail joint from the neck into the body offers a great advantage to a hunter. It allows the hunter to take the bird apart and transport it much more easily, with less chance of breakage. It’s understood, from a collecting standpoint, that goose heads [on decoys] crack or break off entirely. This bird is of durable construction, with a removable head. That’s no small part of why it’s in the condition it’s in, and why it has an unbroken neck today.

Detail shot of the Earnest-Gregory dovetailed goose decoy to show the head in place, but slightly slid out of the dovetail join.

Were you surprised it sold for $810,000? It was not a surprise that it went at that level. It was worth every penny. In terms of records, this is the third-highest price for any decoy at auction. It’s also a record for any goose decoy at auction, and an auction record for any unknown [decoy] maker.

How long might this record stand? What else is out there that could beat it? There are several goose decoys that could break this number. The first to come to mind are by Elmer Crowell, one of which used to hold the world record for any decoy. Others sit very close to the top of the list. I see the high-end decoy market continuing to expand and grow. I expect a significant amount of turnover in price at the very top.

Why will this piece stick in your memory? This specific decoy, before I ever saw it, was my favorite in the entire field of American waterfowl. The more time I spent with it, the better it got. I was so fortunate to be part of offering it for sale.

What was it like to hold it in your hands? It was a little scary. Let me rephrase that–it made you very aware you were holding a tremendously valuable object. It was also very satisfying. It’s a commanding and engaging object. It could dominate any space you put it in. Those are traits that only the greatest objects I’ve handled have.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Images are courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its Sporting Sale 2019 on July 25 at Hotel 1620 in Plymouth, Massachusetts. Top lots include the Harmon “Dust Jacket” Plover trio, a group of shorebirds carved by Elmer Crowell, estimated at $730,000 to $1.1 million.

Colin McNair spoke to The Hot Bid in July 2018 about a preening black duck by Elmer Crowell from the same auction that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

Yes, I filed this story under “Quack” even though the decoy depicts a goose. #SorryNotSorry

SOLD! An Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Sold at Copley Fine Art Auctions For … (Scroll Down to See)

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. It faces left, its head in profile. The body is brown and its wings are spread. Its back is to us. A foot peeks out from under the tail.

Update: The Ira Hudson flying black duck sold for $18,000.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

This Ira Hudson Flying Black Duck Could Soar to $24,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947.

What you see: A decorative carving of a flying black duck, made by Ira Hudson in 1947. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $18,000 to $24,000.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

The lot notes call Ira Hudson “the South’s greatest waterfowl folk artist of the era.” What makes him so? He appears to be self-taught, and he quickly imparted his own style into his work. He seemed to put a much higher emphasis on his style and sensibility over realism. That direction goes toward what I call whimsical. It’s more toward folk art than realism.

What do you mean when you say “whimsical”? He had a very pure and raw confidence that comes forth in his carvings. He was very efficient in every aspect of his methods. You get a high quality standard throughout his body of work, because he did it so much.

I understand that he did not rely on patterns when carving his decoys. How did that affect his work? A lot of decoy makers use patterns for the side profile and the top profile  [of a duck decoy]. It would make sense that he doesn’t use patterns. He would take a block with a rectangular cross section, turn it 45 degrees, and he’d carve from that. Patterns don’t apply to that approach to carving. In addition, we know he used wood he salvaged from the shore. When you use found material, patterns are a hindrance. And when you’re looking at someone with the confidence he had, you wouldn’t need a pattern. He could chop wood with a hatchet and make it look like a duck. You see the form influenced by the wood he had available.

Does Hudson’s avoidance of patterns make his work more interesting to collectors? Absolutely. His freestyle approach to carving created some incredibly lively, animated forms. You’ll notice with this form that the bird arches to one side. The structure of the bird is turned from tip to tail. It’s a crescent. It’s not realistic, but it’s pleasing and exciting to see, and it’s unique to his work. I don’t think anyone else has decoys with a crescent shape to them.

How often do black ducks appear in his work? He lived on Chincoteague, an island off the eastern shore of Virginia. It’s a prime black duck habitat, and black ducks are great birds to hunt. They’re respected for table fare and sport hunting. Hudson made a good number of black ducks to hunt over. That said, his full size carvings of flying black ducks are exceptionally rare. I’ve never seen another full size flying black duck.

Did Hudson introduce the concept of the flyer–a decoy depicted in the act of flying? I wouldn’t go so far as to say that he originated the flyer. However, it doesn’t appear to take the idea from anyone else, and it was made around the time the first flyers were made in various regions. There’s no one around him we’d expect to be exposed to anything like this. He doesn’t get full credit, but he was a pioneer, especially for his region.

When did he start carving flyers? He started carving during the early 20th century, around 1910 or so. The first flyers started showing up in the 1930s and continued into the 1940s. It’s a natural progression considering that waterfowl laws were changing. A decorative flyer was something a sport hunter could afford and be interested in, whereas a market hunter [someone who hunts ducks to sell as food] would only be interested in the decoy.

How many flyers did Hudson make? For full size flyers in total, I’ve probably seen a few dozen.

The lot notes call this a “rare” flying black duck. What makes it rare? We look at his flyers and say, “Ok, there’s a few dozen flyers out there. Among those, you’re down to a couple of flying black ducks.” Others represented are mergansers and mallards. It’s one of the only black duck flyers.

This bird cannot be used as a duck decoy. You can’t hunt with it. It’s purely decorative. Was Hudson among the earliest creators to carve ducks that are purely decorative, or did the changing waterfowl laws nudge him in that direction? This bird is made purely as decorative rather than a decoy. His son [Delbert] painted it exactly how he would paint a decoy. Its purpose was to attract an affluent buyer to decorate a cabin with it. I would say Hudson is in sync with the top makers around the country in the era in starting to do more with decoratives. He was following market trends.

Did he carve this bird in a single piece, or is it assembled from multiple pieces? With this bird, the body is made from one piece of wood. The wings are attached, as are the head and neck. The feet are separate pieces which attach. There are six pieces in a typical flyer as opposed to two pieces in a standard decoy.

He carved the decoy from balsa wood. Is that why he needed to create six pieces? Using multiple pieces of wood for a complex form works for a couple of reasons. One, it minimizes waste. Two, you have to consider the strength of the wood, which comes from the direction of its grain. It’s projecting in different directions, so you have to have the grain aligned in the wood or you’ll have weak points that are going to break. The reason he used balsa is it’s a nice, soft, very easy material to carve. Balsa is not as good for decoys because they wear quickly. On decoratives, it’s far less important, because they’re not taking wear. Wall hangers are lighter weight to reduce the chance of it falling off the wall.

Is it possible to know why Hudson made this? Does the fact that this is one of two known flying black ducks imply this one might have been commissioned? Or might he have made it for his own pleasure? Almost certainly, he would have made it for sale, and to generate income to support his family. We can’t get too deep into the pure reasoning, but he would make anything that would sell. He made clothespins during the war, when there were rations on things. This was made during a time of demand for decorative waterfowl, and he was more than capable of the job.

His son, Delbert, painted this decoy. Do we know when his children started taking on significant roles in the production of decoys? Reportedly, all of his children were involved with production at one time or another. [Hudson had nine.] Delbert and Norman went on to be very competent carvers in their own right. You have to look at Hudson’s work as his workshop. Hudson decoys would have been a joint effort. We judge each bird on its merits.

This flyer dates to 1947, two years before Hudson died. Do collectors prefer any specific time of his career? I’d say this carving is a testament to the high level of quality he maintained over the course of decades. Because of that quality standard, there’s no preference for an era of carving. The date of a carving is less important than its individual qualities.

What’s its condition? Its paint is in ideal original condition. It has one small repair to a wingtip.

It’s made from balsa wood. Would that make it more vulnerable to condition issues? It is, but because it’s a decoy for decorative purposes, it would have had an easy life hanging on a wall.

Would it have been made as a one-off, or would it have been one of a flock of flying black ducks that would hang on a wall together? It would have been made as a single object.

Why will it stick in your memory? First of all, the rarity. A flying black duck stands out. And it has the quality I like to see in any Hudson carving, including a plump body, a fine head carving, a dynamic pose, and exceptional scratch feather paint.

How to bid: The Ira Hudson flying black duck is lot 171 in the 2019 Winter Sale at Copley Fine Art Auctions on February 16, 2019 in Charleston, South Carolina.

How to subscribe to The Hot BidClick the trio of dots at the upper right of this page. You can also follow The Hot Bid on Instagram and follow the author on Twitter.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Colin McNair appeared on The Hot Bid last year, talking about an Elmer Crowell preening black duck decoy that ultimately sold for $600,000.

Quack!

Would you like to hire Sheila Gibson Stoodley for writing or editing work? Click the word “Menu” at the upper right for contact details.

WHOA! That Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Flew Away With $600,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions–Double Its High Estimate

A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips.

Update: The circa 1912 A. Elmer Crowell Phillips rig preening black duck decoy sold for $600,000—double its high estimate.

What you see: A Phillips rig preening black duck decoy, carved circa 1912 by A. Elmer Crowell for his patron, Dr. John C. Phillips. Copley Fine Art Auctions estimates it at $200,000 to $300,000.

Who was A. Elmer Crowell? Born in 1862 in East Harwich, Massachusetts, he’s the king of American duck decoy carvers. Initially, he carved in the course of his work at duck-hunting camps, but over time, his magnificent wooden birds won fans who loved them as decorative objects. His decoys have sold at auction for six-figure sums, and two sold privately for more than $1 million each. Crowell died in 1952, at the age of 89.

The expert: Colin McNair, decoy specialist for Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Forgive me if this is a stupid question, but is this Crowell preening black duck decoy a hen or a drake? Black ducks get a pass on being hens or drakes. 99 percent of the time, they’re just black ducks. This is just a black duck, with no clear designation on being one or the other.

The Crowell preening black duck decoy is also described as being a “rig mate” to other duck decoys that belonged to the late Dr. Phillips. What does it mean for a decoy to be a rig mate? A rig is a group of birds [decoys] owned by and hunted over by one person. It doesn’t always mean the decoys are exactly alike, or made side by side. There can be a lot of variation, depending on how they were made and used. In the context of the Phillips rig, a decoy can be anything out of that group of rig mates. There are Phillips rig mates that look nothing like Crowell’s work.

Crowell carved and painted hundreds of decoys that depicted black ducks. Where does this one rank among his lifetime output? It’s among his very finest. As you mention, he did hundreds of them. This bird is as good as they come, in my personal opinion.

Did he carve the decoy from a single piece of wood? The bird is made of two pieces, one for the body and one for the head. One thing that makes the bird so strong is the masterful sculpture of the duck in a preening position. It’s not easy to capture well, and Crowell did it nearly perfectly. The finer details of the carving show Crowell’s tremendous effort to do his best work for his best patron. We see him coming into a sweet spot in his career–he was as good a carver as he would be, and this was on the early side of showing his command of his wet-on-wet painting technique, which gives a natural, soft look to the feathers.

This Crowell duck decoy looks gorgeous enough to have been destined for a mantle, but the lot notes say it shows evidence of being used on a hunt… It’s a working decoy, and at the same time, it represents one of the best carved decoys in a decorative sense. The bird was hardly used. It was probably retired early because of an appreciation of its aesthetic qualities. I suspect the patron deemed it too precious to hunt over. What’s interesting about the Phillips rig is Crowell didn’t just make this decoy for Phillips, he was his stand manager. He created the decoys, and decided where they would be hunted, and how they would be hunted over. Crowell knew he was going to be involved with handling the decoy after it left his workshop. He wasn’t handing it over to a hunter who might break it. It’s unknowable, but it’s possible because of the relationship Crowell and Phillips had.

Do we know when Crowell made this decoy? He used a hot brand [on his decoys]. We can date his birds to some extent on the quality of the brand. Every time a brand is heated, it corrodes a little. Over the years, a brand can be seen burning out, leaving a softer and softer impression. It’s a great dating tool that Crowell inadvertently left behind. This has a perfectly crisp oval brand, which suggests it was 1912.

Carving the duck’s head to make it hover in a natural-looking way over the body seems difficult. Is it harder to carve a preening duck? You can think of a preener as the decoy maker’s deluxe model. It’s harder to carve and harder to paint. But it adds variety to the rig, making it look more lifelike as a group. An additional benefit is they’re less breakable because the body can protect the head. We have a 200-year-old decoy in the sale with an intact bill because it’s protected by the body in the preening pose.

What is your favorite detail on this Crowell duck decoy? When I look at this bird, the first thing it does is hold together as a phenomenal piece of sculpture. You can go from tip to tail picking out fine details that were expertly executed, but the bird is better than any one single detail.

What is it like to hold the Crowell duck decoy? [Laughs] Being in the presence of the decoy before handling it is a real pleasure. It’s excellent from every angle. And it feels just right in the hand. It’s full, robust, and you can feel the finer subtleties in the carving details. I wouldn’t change a thing.

To explain what a big deal it is to auction Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.’s collection of decoys and sporting art, can you draw an analogy to other notable auctions of lots consigned by great collectors? It would be somewhat like the Rockefeller collection or the Yves St. Laurent collection in its breadth and quality, and that’s been reflected in the market response to the birds so far.

Why will this Crowell preening black duck decoy stick in your memory? Crowell is a quintessential representative of great American bird carving. He was self-taught. He started making decoys because he needed to, and his working decoys led to the birth of American decorative bird carving. This bird is at the nexus of his carving career, where his working decoys became so good, they’re indistinguishable from decorative carving. He’s one of the best makers, making his best effort, carving one of his favorite species for his most important client. It fires on all cylinders from a historic standpoint and an aesthetic standpoint.

How to bid: The Crowell preening black duck decoy is lot 14 in the Donal C. O’Brien, Jr. Collection of Important American Sporting Art and Decoys, Session III, taking place July 19, 2018 at Copley Fine Art Auctions.

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Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

Copley Fine Art Auctions appeared on The Hot Bid last summer in a post about a record-setting Gus Wilson duck decoy.

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RECORD! Original Art From Gary Larson’s The Far Side Sold for $31,070

An original panel of comic strip art from 1983 for The Far Side, signed by cartoonist Gary Larson and dated 10-31.

Update: The original 1983 art for The Far Side sold for $31,070–a world auction record for original artwork from the comic strip. Hooray! And Quack!

What you see: An original panel of comic strip art from 1983 for The Far Side, signed by cartoonist Gary Larson and dated 10-31. Heritage Auctions could sell it for more than $11,000.

Who is Gary Larson, and what was The Far Side? Larson created The Far Side, a daily single-panel comic strip that ran from 1980 to 1995. Nothing on the funny pages has been like it before or since. The Far Side reveled in the surreal, the wacky, and the downright weird to the point where it makes little sense to try to explain its humor. You just have to see it for yourself. (Scroll down for relevant links.) Scientists, in particular, loved The Far Side. Larson has had a beetle, a louse, and a butterfly named in his honor. He will turn 68 in August.

The expert: Weldon Adams, comic book art cataloging specialist at Heritage Auctions.

How rarely does original art from The Far Side come to auction? Fairly rarely. In the past ten years, we’ve had 20 pieces of art.

How does that compare to, say, how often original Peanuts art appears at auction? We have about two of Charles Schulz’s Sunday strips in every signature auction we do, and we do them four times a year. For the dailys, three or four in an auction is not uncommon.

How does original art from The Far Side find its way to the market? Who has it? Where is it? I think Larson did sell a few occasionally, and he gave some out as gifts. But I have to assume he has the bulk of it.

How did this Gary Larson original Far Side art come to Heritage? We’ve sold this particular strip before, in 2013, for $11,352.50. We expect it to go for what it sold for in 2013, if not more.

This strip dates to 1983, which is relatively early in the run of The Far Side. Does that matter? To a degree, yes. In general, the older the strip is, the more prized it is. But because Gary Larsons are so rare to come across in the first place, I don’t think it plays a role here.

Did Gary Larson do Sunday versions of The Far Side? Are those pieces of Gary Larson original Far Side art worth more than the dailys? In the later years, there are Sunday strips, but they’re more or less larger versions of the dailys. Sometimes there are two larger panel single-panel gags. I think they were printed on a larger scale. In other comic strips, the Sundays are physically larger, with more panels. In the case of The Far Side, the Sundays are functionally the same as the dailys, so I don’t know if there’s a difference.

How does the strip’s Far-Side-ness, for lack of a better word, influence its value? This scene between the man and the duck is a pretty straightforward joke by the standards of The Far Side. It’s not like Larson’s infamous “Cow tools” panel, which is held up as an example of how inscrutable the strip could be. It’s a good example of The Far Side‘s off-center sense of humor. The Far-Side-ness draws the fans in because it’s so off-center. You don’t have to look very hard to see that Larson was inspired by Charles Addams’s New Yorker cartoons and their very dark laughs. Only later do you think about the implications and go, ‘Oh.’ Gary Larson did slapstick humor with a dark edge. This is just lighthearted and goofy. He was a master of that as well. And ducks are funny.

Yeah, about that. Larson’s animals are beloved. His cows are probably the most beloved, but he had great strips that feature ducks, such as the one captioned ‘Anatidaephobia: The fear that somewhere, somehow, a duck is watching you.’ How does the presence of the duck affect the value of this original piece of art from The Far Side? Ducks are inherently funny. They’re essentially nature’s stand-up comedians, and they’re one of Larson’s go-to animals. His cow strips are very popular in part because cows are such a familiar animal in the Western world. Ducks are much the same. It’s a familiar animal, and it’s quick and easy to put a duck in a silly situation. The duck adds to the Far-Side-ness. We’re situated to laugh at a duck, from Donald Duck to Daffy Duck to Howard the Duck. Ducks are masters of comedy.

Do animals, in general, tend to add to the value of original art from The Far Side? I’d say probably so. Larson did plenty of strips with people in goofy situations, but where he really shines is anthropomorphism–aspects of making animals human. That’s what brings out the Far-Side-ness, in my opinion. Everyone loves the animals. It’s ideal to have both humans and animals [in a strip]. It sums up the silliness of both sides of the equation.

The Gary Larson original Far Side art is described as being in “excellent condition.” What does that mean? Most comic strip art is in excellent condition. It’s looser than comic book grading. We don’t have a ten-point system for the art. This is artwork that was created on an art table. It was not created with the idea of keeping it in pristine condition. “Excellent” is the top. It means the paper is good quality. It’s not wrinkled or creased. There are no smudges and no lines that don’t belong.

What’s the auction record for a piece of original art from The Far Side? I don’t know the overall record, but I do know our record is for a piece of original comic strip art from 1981, which we sold in 2017 for $28,680. It shows a group of rabbits holding up a stagecoach at gunpoint, so it has the goofiness of humans and animals interacting in funny ways.

As of April 26, 2018, the Gary Larson original Far Side art has been bid up to $3,000, and the auction is two weeks away from closing. Does that mean anything? Early bids are always a good sign. It shows that people out there are interested. When you have more bidders, it’s better in general. But it only takes two. The end is where the real frenzy lies.

Why will this piece of Gary Larson original Far Side art stick in your memory? The Far Side has a habit of sticking in your memory even if you don’t think it does. This one, when I saw it, it reminded me of another strip from The Far Side where scientists are studying the language of dolphins and they’re oblivious to the fact that the dolphins are speaking Spanish. I remembered that because I saw the panel with the duck speaking Spanish.

How to bid: The original 1983 comic strip art for The Far Side is lot #91031 in the Comics & Comic Art Signature Auction at Heritage Auctions on May 10 – 12, 2018.

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Image is courtesy of Heritage Auctions.

Never seen The Far Side? You have a treat ahead of you. Purchase the collected strips, clear your calendar, and enjoy one of the best binge-reads life has to offer.

If you’re curious about the “Cow Tools” strip from The Far Side, see this Reddit thread that debates its weirdness and quotes Larson explaining what he was going for. It includes an image of the panel. The “Cow Tools” cartoon was so enduringly bizarre that it earned an entry on TV Tropes, too.

Weldon Adams previously spoke to The Hot Bid about an original Sunday Peanuts strip from 1958 with a Christmas theme. It ultimately sold for $113,525–a tie for the auction record for original Sunday Peanuts art.

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RECORD! A Gus Wilson Duck Decoy Sold for $330,000

A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus "Gus" Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

The Hot Bid is on Thanksgiving vacation today. I haven’t got anything turkey-related, so I’m celebrating by reposting a story on a record-breaking duck decoy. 

What you see: A red-breasted merganser drake duck decoy, carved circa 1900 by Augustus “Gus” Wilson. It had been described as the finest Wilson decoy ever offered at auction. Copley Fine Art Auctions sold it in July 2014 for $330,000, achieving an auction record for the artist.

Who was Gus Wilson? He was a Maine native, boat builder, lighthouse keeper, and carver. He took up carving in his teens, probably learning the art from family members, and he remained active for most of his life. He died in 1950 at the age of 85 or 86.

How often do you see a Gus Wilson duck decoy carved with an open bill, as this one is? “It’s very infrequent,” says Stephen B. O’Brien Jr., owner of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, Mass. “There’s less than a handful, and many of those [beaks] are broken off and replaced. The fact that this one is intact makes it a real survivor.”

What makes this Gus Wilson duck decoy exceptional? “It’s a big, bold carving. Wilson regularly produced larger, almost oversize carvings,” he says, alluding to the decoy’s generous measurements: seven inches wide, seven inches high, and more than 16 inches long. “It’s got a wonderful sense of sculpture. Combine that with the open bill, which is almost never seen, and it makes it a pinnacle work.

This is described as a “hunted” or “hunt-used” decoy, which means that a hunter actually put it out on the water to lure ducks. Are most Wilson decoys hunt-used? And do collectors prefer hunt-used decoys? “The vast majority of Gus Wilsons found were actually hunted,” O’Brien says. As for hunt-used versus pristine, he says, “It’s a very personal choice. It almost comes down to, in the art world, how some people are attracted to the real world and some people are attached to abstraction. I’m a hunter. I come at it from that perspective. I love a utility decoy that’s been hunted over, that has some wear that shows it was put to its intended use. But you don’t want it to have too much. With replaced heads, tail chips, and shot scars, it starts to take on some negatives. But you can miss out if all you want is pristine birds. They’re pretty hard to find.”

The decoy was carved around 1900. Where was Wilson in his career then? “It places him at about age 35. What’s nice about this merganser is the artist is at the height of his craft. There are subtleties that take more time to create,” he says, explaining that decoy carvers sometimes go through a period when they feel free to indulge in artistic flourishes that transcend the standard shape of the duck decoy–open beaks, fan tails, slightly extended wings–and abruptly stop when they see how their hand-carved treasures suffer nicks and breaks in the field.

How long do you think this auction record for a Gus Wilson duck decoy will stand? “It’s hard to say. As with any market, if the right piece came up and two people wanted it, the record could easily fall,” O’Brien says. “The decoy market has held up strong over the last 10 years relative to other [categories] in the antiques market. It wouldn’t shock me if it fell. Looking at it from the standpoint of being a great Gus Wilson, it’s probably a bargain price for what it went for.”

Are there any other Gus Wilson duck decoys that rival this one? “For me, I haven’t really seen it,” he says. “That’s why we put a heavy estimate on it. [The presale estimate was $350,000 to $450,000]. “He’s a pretty colorful, proud, bright bird. He had all the bells and whistles that collectors look for–the open bill, the cocked-back head, nice original paint, the paddle tail, and the original rigging [the weight on the bottom that lets the decoy float upright]. I can’t think of a better Gus Wilson decoy. If you asked me to own one Gus Wilson decoy, this would be it.”

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Copley Fine Art Auctions will hold its 2017 Sporting Sale on July 27 and 28 in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

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