Quack! An Elmer Crowell Preening Black Duck Decoy Could Fly Away with $300,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

unnamed

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 preening black duck 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.

 

It’s 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 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 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 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 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.

 

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.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. 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.

 

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.

RECORD! Heritage Auctions Sold an Original 1983 Panel From Gary Larson’s The Far Side for $31,070–an Auction Record for the Comic Strip! Also, Quack!

042218_Far_Side_Gary_Larson_for_Hot_Bid

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 for 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 original panel from The Far Side 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 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 for 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 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, the lot 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 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.

 

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.

 

Heritage Auctions is on Twitter and Instagram.

 

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. 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.

 

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

RECORD: A Gus Wilson Red-Breasted Merganser Sails Away With $330,000 at Copley Fine Art Auctions

9912_43F0Y2R98

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 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 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 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.”

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.

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

Text is copyright Sheila Gibson Stoodley. Image is courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions.

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.