Question: I would like to expand my duck-decoy collection. I have decoys going back to the 19th Century, and I wondered how difficult it would be to locate decoys carved by American craftsmen from the 18th Century.--L.C.
Answer: You will have to expend great efforts to locate 18th-Century decoys, according to dealers and collectors. Few survived, they say, and if they did they are either in poor condition, in institutional hands or prohibitively expensive.
That's too bad, because American decoys have a rich history. The first were undoubtedly carved by Colonials taking a cue from Indians, who had generations of experience in luring wild birds, such as ducks.
The difference, historians note, was that the American Indian usually used natural materials, such as feathers, grasses or even the stuffed skins of the actual birds they were hunting. Colonials preferred to carve their decoys out of wood.
As the art of decoy carving became more sophisticated, master craftsmen usually carved the head separately and then attached it to the body.
Although decoys have been popular with collectors for a number of years, they seem to have become a "hot" collectible in the past decade. As you might expect, prices have soared in ratio to demand. According to some collectors, prices for the most desirable decoys are 10 times or more what they were a decade ago.
As a result, quality antique waterfowl decoys have become big business and usually are too expensive for the flea market genre of collector.
For example, price tags of $10,000 and more per decoy have not been unusual. In 1986, more than $300,000 was paid for a preening pintail drake carved six decades ago by an individual who sold his decoys for $2 apiece.
Of great interest to the decoy collector, of course, is the head of the piece, which, if damaged, can significantly impact the price of the overall carving.
Some popular 19th-Century carvers included Nathan Cobb and Albert Laing. Sought-after carvers of the 20th Century included John Dawson and Robert Elliston, Joseph W. Lincoln and Charles (Shang) Wheeler.
Probably the best know decoy carver of the early 20th Century was A. (Elmer) Crowell of Massachusetts, according to Elizabeth Warren, curator of the Museum of American Folk Art in New York, which has a traveling exhibition of more than 100 decoys.
Some carvers also insert delicate tail feathers to give their decoys a more realistic look, Warren said. But these decoys are considered more contemporary and not in the folk art genre, she added.
Most common among waterfowl decoys are mallards, pintails and canvasbacks, birds that frequent bays and inland waterways.
Less popular are what's known as shore-bird decoys, which are mounted on sticks and stuck into the ground. These decoys can be made of wood or tin.
There's no one strict rule of thumb on what to look for in terms of value. Some collectors are more interested in who made the decoy, which is not always an easy task because many were unsigned--leaving identity to be established on the basis of design.
Other collectors are more interested in condition; for example, the quality of the original paint finish and whether there are significant damage marks. A footnote: Collectors of this category say there are times when a slightly worn finish, indicating age, can enhance a decoy's value.
Too much wear, however, can be a burden on a decoy's price. Collectors say this can occur when a carver left a decoy outside for a year or more to "weather" it with the objective of making it look more natural. This is fine for hunting purposes, but collectors might eschew such decoys.
From time to time, some unscrupulous carvers also have "weathered" their work for a different reason: to convince buyers that a decoy is much older than it actually is.
Collectors warn that refinishing decoys is a tricky business and should be done only by experts. Because original paint and condition are important, they advise to leave the decoy alone as much as possible.
A highly rated, recently published book on the subject is "Connecticut Decoys" by Henry Chitwood with Thomas Marshall and Doug Knight ($45, Schiffer Publishing Ltd., P.O. Box 288, Old Greenwich, Conn. 06870; 192 pp, 400 photographs, 47 in color).
Another book of interest, published in 1985, is American Wildfowl Decoys by Jeff Waingrow (E. P. Dutton, 117 pp, color photos, $14.95), available from the Museum of American Folk Art, 62 West 50th St., New York, N.Y. 10112.