Endnotes: Duck call

Editorial Staff Art

This Canada goose clearly lost its bearings, migrating all the way to South America in the twentieth century before returning to the United States this past August. A routine e-mail inquiry to Christie’s in New York resulted in the exciting realization that it was only the fourth decoy of its type to come to light. What makes it so special is the dovetailed, or slot-neck, construction for attaching the head and neck to the body. The four known geese from the rig each bear a number painted on both parts; here it is 6, indicating that there may well be at least two more of these beautifully sculpted birds out there for the hunting.

That is good news, because recently de­­­­­­­coys have been attracting hunters of many sorts—not only fowlers themselves, but also bird lovers, folk art collectors, environmentalists, and even celebrities. Their sculptural beauty appeals across boundaries of taste, price, and personal philosophy, notes Stephen B. O’Brien Jr. of Copley Fine Art Auctions in Boston, whose annual sporting art sale in July included more than 450 lots of working and decorative decoys that brought a total of more than $3 million. The high­­­­­­lights were seven impor­­­­tant examples made by the renowned Cape Cod carver A. Elmer Crowell for the collector Harry V. Long, including the exquisite preen­ing pintail shown here, which sold for $546,250.

The Canada goose is on the block in Christie’s Important American Furniture, Folk Art and Prints sale at the end of September, with a pre-sale estimate of $200,000 to $400,000.

Working decoys are often constructed in two parts to facilitate carrying them in hunting bags, but also “because it would be almost impossible to find a large enough piece of wood to carve long-necked waterfowl like this one,” says Joseph Engers of Decoy Magazine. Usually the head and neck section is simply screwed or doweled into the body. The only other decoys that have a dovetail construction are two groups of shorebirds, mostly yellow legs, known to have originated in New England, which has led to the speculation that the geese were made there. But three of them were originally found by the early folk art collector and dealer Adele Earnest in Columbia, Pennsylvania, in the waterfowling region along the Sus­quehanna River. “Given the fine work­­­­manship they exhibit,” Engers says, “I think they were probably made there by a German American craftsman skilled in woodwork­­ing, possibly himself a hunter­­­­, who devised the dovetailing method totally independently.”

The surprise appearance of the wayward goose in Buenos Aires is another instance of what John Hays, deputy chairman of Christie’s America, is calling  the “fourth D”—discovery—which together with the traditional three Ds—death, divorce, and duties (that is, taxes)—is playing an important role in bringing works of art to light-and to the market. Some twenty-five years ago, the consignor’s father, a hunter with a ranch in Patagonia, acquired a group of shotguns from an expatriate American. Evidently, the seller had some decoys he wanted to get rid of, so they were thrown into the deal and taken away to the ranch. The goose was eventually brought back to their house in Buenos Aires because the family found it so appealing, although they had no idea of its rarity. But the people at Christie’s recognized it immediately-one of its rig mates had sold there in 2007 for more than half a million dollars.

Images: Canada goose decoy, probably Columbia, Pennsylvania, area, possibly New England, late nineteenth century. Inscribed “6” on the dovetail at the bottom of the neck and on the seat into which it slides. Cedar or pine; height 16, length 30, width 10 inches. The dovetail construction attaching the neck to the body is rare. Photograph by courtesy of Christie’s, New York; Preening pintail decoy carved by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Massachusetts, c. 1910. Cedar or pine; height 7, length 17 ½, width 6 ¼ inches. Commissioned by Harry V. Long of Cohasset, Massachusetts, the decoy descended in his family until it was sold in July. Photograph by courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions, Boston.