Inside the Archives: Duck Decoy Prices

Lot 228, Pintail drake decoy by Lou Schifferi, c. 1970s, Eldred's (August 3)

Long before English colonists arrived in America, Native Americans used natural materials like mud and carcasses to conjure up bird and other animal decoys for hunting. Later, colonists began to emulate and build upon this hunting tactic.

From the mid-19th century through the early 20th century, the use of painted, wooden, hollow or solid shorebird, goose, and duck decoys became the norm for bird hunters. While no longer used today due to advances in decoy materials and technology, these wooden decoys are now considered highly collectible, with some auction houses dedicated entirely to the buying and selling of these magnificent works of folk art.

How Decoys Turned Collectible

Duck decoys weren’t seen as collectors’ items until the mid-20th century, says Gary Guyette of Guyette & Deeter, who has sold decoys since 1984 and has since become a a top player in the market. It started with pockets of people, a few hundred if that, throughout the U.S. in the 1950s and ‘60s who began collecting decoys. When Hal Sorenson of Burlington, Iowa decided to publish a magazine called “The Decoy Collector’s Guide,” everything started to change.

“All of a sudden, because of this magazine, people all over the country started to realize that there were others out there who collected these decoys. That started a movement of communication among collectors and people were sending information about decoys and carvers their region. Soon enough, decoy shows around the country started popping up,” says Guyette. Then, in the late 1960s, Richard Borne started holding decoy-specific auctions in Hyannis, Massachusetts. No one had done this before. Once he was commissioned to sell the estate of William J. Mackey, the most important decoy collector of the time, people started showing up to the auctions.

One decoy at that auction sold for $10,000, something that was unheard of at the time. This captured the media’s attention, and soon after, prices soared even higher. “In the early ‘80s, decoys were selling for $20,000 and up.”

Then in 1986, Guyette & Deeter sold a decoy for $190,000, and two following auctions at other houses yielded record price results of $206,000 and $319,000. According to Guyette, skyrocketing prices were largely due to a shift in the collector profile. In the beginning, collectors were wealthier sport hunters like attorneys and doctors. In the mid-80s, much wealthier business people started showing interest.

“All of a sudden, people who were worth hundreds of millions of dollars, not just a couple million, were going after decoys. That pushed the price structure up dramatically,” says Guyette. Today, while some folk art collectors buy duck decoys, most collectors tend to be sport hunters who attend auctions and events for both their united collecting passion and the camaraderie that goes along with it.

“Year after year, people come to the auctions to see friends. They turn into enjoyable events in addition to a business,” says Guyette. “That’s one of the things that drives the market – decoys tend to be independent of other antiques. In 2004, 2005, and 2007, decoys were going up in value, even when the housing market was falling apart, whereas antiques were not.”

Today’s Decoy Market

In 2000, in a joint sale with Sotheby’s, Guyette & Deeter sold a decoy for $684,000. Then in 2003, in Guyette & Deeter’s own sale, for $803,000, and for $830,000 in 2006. To date, the record price for a decoy is $856,000, sold in 2007 by Guyette & Deeter in a joint auction with Christie’s. Due to the economic downturn in 2008, prices lowered, but have since been creeping back up, says Guyette

Crowell pintail, sold in January 2003 for $801,500. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter

Crowell plover, sold in November 2006 for $830,000. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter

Holmes merganser hen, sold in January 2007 for $856,000. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter

But birds of a wooden feather don’t always flock together. “It’s hard to predict what a decoy will sell for today – so many factors determine their price,” says Guyette. First, prices range by maker. They also range by region – New England, Long Island, New Jersey, North Carolina, and more areas have specific decoy types and collectors. Then, there are different species of decoys – shorebirds, duck, geese, and more. Shorebirds are more scarce because this type of hunting was outlawed in 1928, so they tend to go for higher prices. But, says Guyette, most people collect duck and goose decoys.

In addition to maker and region, there’s also form and condition to consider. “The reason valuable decoys are so valuable is because 90 percent of them were repainted or had their heads broken off, so the ones that are left in good condition are the best ones and go for high prices.” According to Guyette, most of the decoys he sees in appraisals are worth about $100.

The more expensive decoys were sold by Elmer Crowell, but these came in different grades and species. “There’s a wide range of prices within the same maker category. You can buy an original Elmer Crowell black duck in great condition for $2,500. We also sold a Mason Factory wood duck, the rarest species, in the highest grade for around $650,000. There are big variations depending on maker and type of decoy,” notes Guyette. And, he adds, whether or not a decoy is factory or handmade doesn’t necessarily make a difference in price.

Decoys by different makers go up and down in price depending on what comes to market, the economy, and new buyers starting to collect a specific region or other collectors dropping out, says Guyette. Despite the many determining price factors, we rounded up realized prices of duck and shorebird decoys made by a handful of top makers to help you get a sense of what these birds sell for.

By Augustus Wilson

1: Wilson Preening Eider Hen

Lot 70, Decoys Unlimited (July 2012)
Estimated Price: $45,000 – $65,000
Realized Price: $25,500

2: Rocking Head Red-Breasted Merganser Drake

Lot 436, Guyette & Deeter (November 2015)
Estimated Price: $8,000 – $12,000
Realized Price: $12,000

3: Red-Breasted Merganser Drake

Lot 303, Guyette & Deeter (July 2010)
Estimated Price: $3,000 – $3,500
Realized Price: $2,700

By Elmer Crowell

4: Black-Bellied Plover

Lot 61, Guyette & Deeter (July 2012)
Estimated Price: $12,000 – $18,000
Realized Price: $18,500

5: Canvasback Drake

Lot 351, Guyette & Deeter (April 2009)
Estimated Price: $20,000 – $25,000
Realized Price: $11,000

6: Pintail Drake

Lot 584, Guyette & Deeter (November 2010)
Estimated Price: $4,000 – $5,000
Realized Price: $3,000

By Joseph Lincoln

7: Rare Widgeon Drake

Lot 25, Guyette & Deeter (July 2010)
Estimated Price: $50,000 – $60,000
Realized Price: $52,500

8: Greater Yellowlegs

Lot 393, Guyette & Deeter (July 2014)
Estimated Price: $7,500 – $9,500
Realized Price: $26,000

9: Self-Bailing Scoter by Joseph Lincoln

Lot 411, Guyette & Deeter (July 2009)
Estimated Price: $5,000 – $7,000
Realized Price: $4,500

By Obediah Verify

10: Black-Bellied Plover

Lot 179, Guyette & Deeter (November 2015)
Estimated Price: $25,000 – $35,000
Realized Price: $30,000

11: Running Sandpiper by Obediah Verity

Lot 188K, Guyette & Deeter (February 2016)
Estimated Price: $3,000 – $4,000
Realized Price: $6,750

12: Running Sandpiper by Obediah Verity

Lot 420, Guyette & Deeter (November 2014)
Estimated Price: $1,250 – $1,750
Realized Price: $2,250

By William Bowman

13: Curlew, style of William Bowman

Lot 1, Guyette & Deeter (August 2013)
Estimated Price: $30,000 – $40,000
Realized Price: $45,000

14: Pintail Drake

Lot 220, Guyette & Deeter (April 2015)
Estimated Price: $2,500 – $3,500
Realized Price: $4,000

15: Hollow Carved Curlew, style of William Bowman

Lot 12, Guyette & Deeter (November 2015)
Estimated Price: $1,750 – $2,250
Realized Price: $1,000

By John Dilley

16: Ruddy Turnstone

Lot 376, Guyette & Deeter (August 2013)
Estimated Price: $80,000 – $100,000
Realized Price: $85,000

17: Ruddy Turnstone by John Dilley

Lot 545, Guyette & Deeter (April 2014)
Estimated Price: $17,500 – $22,500
Realized Price: $12,500

18: Plover

Lot 513, Guyette & Deeter (July 2014)
Estimated Price: $800 – $1,200
Realized Price: $700

By Shang Wheeler

19: Black Duck

Lot 374, Guyette & Deeter (July 2014)
Estimated Price: $65,000 – $85,000
Realized Price: $100,000

20: Sleeping Bluebill Drake

Lot 198, Guyette & Deeter (August 2013)
Estimated Price: $30,000 – $40,000
Realized Price: $42,000

21: Working Black Duck

Lot 77, Guyette & Deeter (November 2015)
Estimated Price: $6,500 – $9,500
Realized Price: $5,500

More Popular Makers: George Boyd, Albert Laing, Harry V. Shourds, John Blair Sr., Ward Brothers, Ira Hudson, Nathan Cobb Jr., Lee Dudley, Charles Perdew, Mason Factory, Charles Schoenheider Sr., Robert Elliston, Charles Bergman

On the hunt for duck, shorebird, or goose decoys? Check out Decoys Unlimited Decoys (July 21-22), Guyette & Deeter’s Decoys (July 26-27), Eldred’s Americana, Paintings & Sporting (August 3-5) and more.