That’s when the lot immediately preceding the blue heron – an American egret standing 8 ½ inches tall and boasting the superb original paint – changed hands for $25,875, breaking the previous record of $25,300 (set at a 2004 auction, also held by Decoys Unlimited, Inc.). Where it took eight years for the egret to enter the record books, it took minutes for that record to fall.
The great blue heron, at just over 8 ½ inches tall, was about twice the size of a typical Crowell miniature bird of this species, which no doubt drove up the price. It was mounted on a carved “rock” base with subtle undulations and the piece was signed on the base in Crowell’s hand (“Blue Heron”). The surface of the decoy was flawless, with nicely blended feather detail.
“All the Crowell carvings in this sale were strong, as were miniatures by A.J. King and George Boyd,” said Ted Harmon, owner of Decoys Unlimited, Inc., based in Barnstable, Mass. He added, “The market is much stronger than it was in 2008 and 2009. Things are bouncing back. The back-to-back Crowell miniature record-breakers are indicative of a healthy demand.”
The auction was held in conjunction with Swap & Sell, an annual event held by Decoys Unlimited that brings together dealers, collectors and other decoy enthusiasts from across the country. The auction and Swap & Sell drew a combined crowd of about 400 people, while the auction grossed right around $1.15 million. Internet bidding was facilitated by Artfact.com.
Following are additional highlights from the auction, in which 1,021 lots came up for bid. All prices quoted include a 15 percent buyer’s premium.
While the name Crowell was chanted frequently throughout the sale, one of his decoys was not the top lot. That honor went to an exceedingly rare red knot in breeding plumage, with carved wings and shoulders, by John Dilley (Quoque, N.Y.). The decoy, showing intricately painted feather detail and in untouched, original near-mint condition, hammered for $51,750.
Three other birds topped the $30,000 mark. One was a magnificent pintail drake made circa 1910-1920 by Lloyd B. Sterling (Crisfield, Md.). The decoy, having a broad body style with an elongated, gracefully upswept tail, brought $37,375. Another was a rare crook neck “hissing” goose by George Boyd (1873-1941), New Hampshire’s premier carver. It hit $31,625.
Other George Boyd examples that got paddles wagging included an extremely rare miniature dovekie on a “signature”
The third decoy to crack the $30,000 mark was a rare upright willet by the noted carver and hunting guide, John Thomas Wilson (1863-1940), from Ipswich, Mass. The circa-1900 bird, an example of a rig of four willets found in Minnesota in 2007, soared to $34,500. It measured 15 ¾ inches in a straight line, from bill to tail, and featured wings nicely carved in deep relief.
A pair of works by Gus Wilson of Portland, Me. (1864-1950), made circa 1880-1900, both changed hands after the sale. One was an iconic preening eider hen with an exceptionally sculpted surface and excellent all-original paint ($25,500). The other was a monumental early merganser drake with finely carved raised wing detail and lightly worn original paint ($22,500).
A greater yellowlegs by William “Bill” Bowman of Lawrence, N.Y. (1824-1906) went for $28,750. The decoy had deeply carved wings and shoulders, with a typical Bowman split tail and individually raised wingtips. Also, a tucked head dowitcher by the carving partnership of Dr. Clarence Gardner and Newton Dexter of Little Compton, R.I., found a new owner for $18,400.
A diminutive green-winged teal drake made circa 1900 by George Sibley (d. 1938, also known as Joe French’s “Mr. X” of Chicago, Ill.) coasted to $16,675. A charming, wonderfully proportioned and petite decoy, it may be the finest example by Sibley. Also, a wonderful pair of hooded mergansers by Harold W. Noland (Cache Bay, Ont., CD), made circa 1925, hit $11,500.
Returning to Elmer Crowell, an early and rare sanderling made around 1910, originally carved for Dr. John Cunningham, one of Crowell’s earliest and best customers, with an animated twist to the head and neck, giving the bird a quizzical upward gaze, fetched $18,400; and a rare “wing-up” preening lesser yellowlegs with some professional restoration work garnered $16,100.
Also by Crowell: a spectacular, life-size mockingbird on a chip carved base, rich and beautifully executed with the original paint, one of the artist’s best songbirds, soared to $13,800; and a miniature screech owl in a wonderful pose with large yellow glass eyes, tufts on the forehead, carved wing-out lines and painted feet on a tall “rock” base, topped out at $5,462.
A black duck by Benjamin Warren Pease (1866-1938, Martha’s Vineyard, Mass.), with subtle yet extremely effective painted plumage on an example that appears never to have been rigged, topped out at $6,900; and a pair of ruddy ducks by A.J. King (North Scituate, R.I.), in excellent original condition and a magnificent rendering of these little birds sold for $5,750.
Another carving by King was a wonderful miniature snow goose family in the “blue” phase, with one adult standing alone and one resting with five tiny “babies” on a burl wood base ($5,750). Also, a Mason Factory glass eye dove decoy made circa 1905 in excellent condition, with strong factory swirling and sponged and painted feather detailing, commanded $4,600.
Rounding out some of the sale’s top lots: an early bluebill drake (circa 1880-1890), from Long Island and an example of folk art at its best, boasting a deep, stylish body with pronounced breast and elongated paddle tail, coasted to $4,025; and a matched pair of penguins mounted as bookends by Charles H. “Charlie” Hart (1862-1960, Marblehead, Mass) hammered for $3,450.
Decoys Unlimited, Inc.’s next big sale is tentatively slated for sometime in October. Watch the website for details as fall approaches: www.decoysunlimitedinc.net. Decoys Unlimited, Inc., is always accepting quality consignments for future sales. To consign a single decoy or an entire collection, you may call them at (508) 362-2766; or, you can send them an e-mail them at theodores.harmon@