Duck Decoy Collecting: Tips and Tricks

Duck Decoy Collecting: Tips And Tricks

Some duck decoys have sold for insane amounts of money.

If you’re a duck hunter, or you’re just an aficionado about everything duck hunting-related, then you’ve probably already envisioned where you’re going to put your decoys when you begin collecting them.

There’s a whole world of duck decoy collecting. It’s a niche area, but if you really love duck hunting and quality craftsmanship, you’re going to get a kick out of it.

However, there are some things you should know about, from price regulation (and the men who influence it) to detecting defects, broken beaks, prices, and how to test the quality of a decoy before buying it.

Whew.

There’s a lot to cover, but we’re going to get to the bottom of it all with these tips and tricks.

With this guide, I’ll do my best to make sure you don’t get taken for a ride.

Tips and Tricks for Decoy Collecting

#1 Start Attending Auctions

Hunting Auction

Most decoy trading and purchases are going to occur at auctions.

Even if you don’t have any money to bring, even if you know there are six-figure decoys on display, go anyway.

You’re going to get a feel for how these things go, and you’ll get to look at these auctions and the decoys first-hand.

You’ll get to see some duck hunting history like most people will never see (because the Guyette and Deeter photos on their modern website are terribly low quality).

Talk to people. Get involved. Discuss what you’re a hunter, not just a collector, and you’re going to garner some attention.

People will want your opinion on your experiences, something that many of them might not have had before.

Take it as a chance to get involved with the community element of duck decoy collecting.

You might even make some contacts here, or hear about smaller auctions where you can afford the decoys going on display.

#2 Travel to Contemporary Carver Shops

Two Handmade Hunting Decoys

There are still people making hand-carved, wooden duck decoys in today’s day and age.

It’s a revered hobby now, whereas it was just used to make decoys for hunting to quite literally put food on the table for a ton of people.

That’s not to say that old-school 18th and 19th-century carvers didn’t enjoy what they were doing, but it’s a hobby now with no necessity in it.

Many carvers will have online profiles or stores and might not actually have shops, but thanks to the age we’re living in, you can contact them and talk.

You might even be able to contract custom work if you want them to make a brand new decoy for you.

In that sense, it’s important to remember that all famous carvers were once unknown, and all the decoys you see at auctions used to be new.

You could be getting in on the ground floor of the next Crowell.

#3 Check the Beak

If you’re looking to get antiques from little-known carvers, you need to check the beak.

It’s going to give you bargaining power like you never thought possible.

Any decoy loses most of its value if the beak broke off at any point in time.

They can be put back on to look like new with the help of a skilled woodworker, but the split line will never fully go away.

It still has value, but it’s going to be well within your budget in ways that it previously wasn’t.

I don’t want to put on a tinfoil hat, but auctions don’t always disclose if the decoys you’re looking at were repaired once upon a time.

Sometimes, you just have to notice for yourself.

You’re not going to get a chance to hold it unless you buy it, but you can encircle it with a watchful eye like a vulture to spot imperfections.

#4 Look for Original Paint

Hunting Decoy

Original paint is far more important than a repair or restoration when you’re talking about value.

Original paint might be lead-based, but that’s what gives it some of that authenticity.

It’s okay if there are minor dings or discolorations along the body; it’s natural if they were actually used in the water before, but be sure to spot the difference between wear and tear and where a paint job is being covered up.

To clarify, there’s nothing wrong with getting a restored duck decoy.

New paint, fixed beak, but it’s still made by a famous carver?

That’s a steal. You’re not Guyette or Deeter, and you’re not looking to hoard these decoys as a pension plan.

If you like it, go for it, just don’t overpay if you can spot these imperfections and bring it up to the auctioneer or curator.

#5 Store Them Properly

Glass cases or poly-vinyl cases, wooden stands or encased on the wall; whatever you want to do, just make sure that they’re protected.

Contemporary decoys will become valuable one day, and old valuable decoys will last a lot longer if they aren’t being exposed to the air in your home.

You want that paint to shine for as long as possible.

Keep your decoys out of the direct sunlight to avoid sun bleaching and UV damage as well.

How Did Duck Decoys Become Collectibles?

Wooden Duck Decoy Collection

Duck decoys have always been a part of American and Canadian culture.

While you can find some history of ducking hunting and other bird hunting in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, and Germany, it usually pertains to the US.

During the 19th century, there were a ton of famous duck decoy creators in the United States that are still celebrated to this day.

Most of which were born between 1850 and 1880 and lived until the 1950s.

Today, there are few actual duck decoy makers of merit, which is why these old decoys have gained such popularity and noteworthiness.

If you think about it, there are a lot of duck decoys that were made practically in Civil War times, somewhere between there and World War II.

Just like other pieces of gear and equipment from that time are revered, so too are duck decoys.

A lot of it has to do with historical accuracy because if we’re being totally honest, machines could make very similar all-wood duck decoys.

They could be manufactured, but it’s all about the dings, scrapes, and paint along the way.

Once something becomes rare, it’s worth a lot of money, and these designs were one-of-a-kind during their time.

They’re also solid as can be, so you’re not dealing with flimsy plastic.

Some of the paint might be lead-based, and while it’s a health hazard and we don’t do that anymore, it’s a show of historical authenticity.

But along the way, when did someone decide that they were worth something?

Well, collectors like to collect things because of their rarity.

As humans, we’re drawn to words like exclusive, rare, one-of-a-kind, and limited—we like to have things that make us unique, but I’m willing to bet that most of us don’t have a fraction of the money that true blue collectors do.

For some context, there’s a whole list of the most expensive decoys ever sold.

While most of the purchases on that list are post-2000, there was an, at the time record in 1988 of $300,000 earned from a single decoy sale.

That’s the equivalent of over $630,000 today, accounting for inflation over the last thirty or so years.

Collectibles get expensive, but there’s a couple of guys who make it even pricier.

It’s time for you to understand who Guyette and Deeter are, some of the most well-known names in all of decoy collecting.

Who Are Guyette and Deeter?

Decoys Auctioneer

I would like to just say two guys who make a ton of money, but it’s more than that.

Guyette and Deeter are auctioneers.

They’ve held over 125 live auctions to date, and while they also auction paintings and a few other rarities, they mostly focus on duck decoys.

Their website tagline reads “The World’s Leading and Most Trusted Decoy Auction Firm.”

They’ve been setting the prices for decoys for years, and they’ll continue to do so for quite some time.

Guyette and Deeter have been present at roughly 80% of all expensive or record-breaking decoy auctions, whether they’re buying decoys or hosting the events themselves.

Men like this are able to spend ridiculous amounts of capital for antiques like these, and then offset them at whatever price they deem fit.

They control the market for the most part.

What Makes Duck Decoys Valuable?

Duck decoys aren’t only valuable because they’re told—that’s the qualifier, but it’s not the only thing.

Check out the main six attributes that determine the cost of a valuable, antique duck decoy.

Original Maker

Elmer Crowell Making A Decoy

This is where it gets tricky.

You’re going to hear me mention a man by the name of Crowell a lot throughout this post, and that’s because he’s fetched more for his decoys on the market than any other carver in history.

I just want to give you a quick overview of some of the most famous carvers so you can understand what kind of money they’ve made (usually after the fact) from their unique duck decoys.

  • A. Elmer Crowell: A Massachusetts-born man, Crowell is the most synonymous name with expensive duck decoys. In total, he’s brought in more than $7 million just from 31 individual decoys, and currently holds the record for the highest-priced decoy ever sold, which was a bundle of two for $1.13 million.
  • Lothrop Holmes: Often the second fiddle to Crowell, Holmes holds the record for the second-most expensive decoy ever sold at $856,000. He was another Massachusetts man, but he started as a carpenter, and decoy-making was his favorite hobby.
  • Gus Wilson: A fantastic carver of merganser decoys, Wilson was a gifted carver. He didn’t make many, but the ones that he focused on were fantastic. He brought in over $330,000 for a merganser decoy a few years before the writing of this post.
  • Joe Lincoln: This man was a legend. He painted decoys even in his 70s because he just loved doing it so much. One of his decoys sold recently for $299,000, and we know it was made with nothing but love.
  • Bert Graves: A fairweather decoy maker, Graves is one of the few decoy makers on this list that isn’t from New England. He made decoys for years as a hobby but eventually found solace in knowing that he was revered as an expert before he died.

The most famous carvers were born in the 1800s, meaning there’s a lot of undocumented history that we can’t even fathom behind the wood of their decoys.

Imagine owning one of these, or spotting a Wilson or Graves at a small-time auction and snagging it for a low cost.

Region

North America on Globe

Regionally, most duck hunters and decoy carvers come from North America.

A lot of them are in the US, but we do have some Canadian-born hunters and carvers that have contributed a lot to the history behind decoys.

Your region is going to matter because it will prove the authenticity of specific carvers or makers.

If you know for a fact that the decoy comes from Massachusetts, it makes it a lot more believable that Crowell himself made it.

Decoy Species

On average, there are about eight different types of duck decoy species made, but we have millions of duck species (and 2.7 million goose species, by the way).

That’s a lot to try and account for, which is why we stick to some of the most common types of ducks found in North America.

You’ve got northern pintails, American black ducks, Canada geese, wood ducks, redheads, and a few others that are less and less common.

The decoy species will dictate what colors are used and how much detail there needs to be, which can also impact the total asking price of a rare decoy due to the next attribute on our list: the condition.

Condition

Carved Duck Decoy

The condition is huge if you ever plan on reselling or going to auction with Guyette and Deeter to make a pretty little penny on your investment in ten years.

You can measure the condition by noting the original beak, the original paint, scuffs, scrapes, and general wear and tear.

If it looks pristine and absolutely 100% perfect, but it was carved in 1880, chances are there’s been a restoration.

Some restorations can actually increase the value of a duck decoy, but most of the time, it’s all about the history behind it.

People want to see a divot and say, “Crowell did that, and I want it.” Condition matters, but there’s some leeway.

Minor scuffs and scrapes?

It’ll still fetch a pretty penny.

You can even see some $500,000+ decoy sales on the Guyette and Deeter website with little bits of paint splatters or dings on them.

If the general shape is intact and it still looks relatively lifelike, then it’s still worth something.

Size

Duck Decoys On Shelves

This is going to vary a lot. It depends on duck decoys versus goose decoys, the breed, and how old it is.

Sometimes old-school carvers just couldn’t get their hands on a piece of wood that was large enough, so they had to work with what was available and hope ducks didn’t notice the difference.

The size isn’t as pertinent as the condition, the carver, or the rest of the attributes on this list, but it’s still something to keep in mind while you’re shopping.

History Behind it

There’s a ton of history around duck decoys.

Some were made as far back as the Civil War, though you’d be hard-pressed to find one that isn’t in the six-figure range.

These are old, old pieces of American culture dating back over a century—the story behind it, if it can be fact-checked, is what’s going to sell it.

You’re either going to get tales of Crowell painting his decoys in his old age or information about where the decoy hails from and how much damage it endured.

Every scrape and ding has some sort of a story behind it, which is why a lot of duck hunters like me are drawn to decoy collecting.

I’d rather be out there hunting, but it’s nice to have some decoys in my home to remind me that I’ll always be one with my hobby.

Duck Decoy Collecting—Who Knew?

Duck decoy collecting can get expensive.

If you’re serious about it, you’re looking at spending a good amount of money to build up your collection over time.

That is, if you care about historical decoys from famous American- and Canadian-born carvers.

There’s a rich history with it, but if you just like the paraphernalia, that’s okay too—there’s nothing wrong with just having them around as decorations.

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