Duck, Duck, Goose: The Superb and Valuable A. Elmer Crowell Decoys

A nesting Canada goose by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1900-1912. Estimated value at auction: $600,000 to $900,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

A nesting Canada goose by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1900-1912. Estimated value at auction: $600,000 to $900,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

Next month, on July 15, Copley Fine Art Auctions, LLC will auction some of the most fabulous decoys ever made. The firm will open its annual two-day sporting sale by offering seven decoys by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) from the H.V. Long collection.

Crowell has always been my favorite carver of decoys, and I am certainly not alone; two Crowell decoys sold for $1.13 million each in 2007. And his extraordinarily fine decoys always bring big money in any venue (his lesser decoys can still be had by the everyday collector in the $1,500 plus range).

Crowell lived and worked in East Harwich, Mass. and surrounding areas. He was a sportsman’s guide, camp caretaker and market gunner. He did sell decoys, but this was not initially his major source of income. He made many working decoys, but over the course of his lifetime, the decorative decoys and songbirds he made to sell far outnumber them.

His working decoys consisted of three grades or styles; the production period of these grades overlapped so this can be used for general dating only. The earliest decoys were full-sized or oversized with plenty of carving. The tail feathers and the primaries were fully carved. He also carved with a gouge to simulate feathers. He used a rasp on the back of the head and breast to simulate feathers as well. As far as the collector is concerned these are the best of the working decoys. Normally there is no maker’s mark on these decoys; only rarely do they have his oval stamp on the bottom. The stamp said “A.ELMER CROWELL EAST HARWICH MASS,” on the curve of the stamp and “DECOYS” in the center. He used glass taxidermy eyes and carved out details on the bill.

By 1910, Crowell was selling a simplified version, eliminating all carving on the body but the outlining of the tail feathers and still using the rasp on the breast and head. These decoys had the oval brand. By 1915, the carving is completely gone on the body except the rasp work on the head and breast. Oval and then rectangular identification stamps were used. His son Cleon Crowell is known to have used the rectangular brand. Elmer sold 20 dozen of these third grade decoys to Iver Johnson to sell in their store in Boston. They have an Iver Johnson white stencil on the bottom.

Most important, all Elmer Crowell’s decoys were superbly painted. He achieved subtle feathering and color shading that in my opinion is unmatched by other carvers. And he painted all styles of his decoys with similar care. Elmer Crowell retired in 1944.

Open-bill Calling Yellowlegs with dropped wings by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1910. Estimated value at auction: $150,000 to $250,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

Open-bill Calling Yellowlegs with dropped wings by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1910. Estimated value at auction: $150,000 to $250,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

With the demise of market gunning, his output of working decoys decreased and his decoratives increased. His carved decorative decoys include ducks, shore birds, songbirds and miniatures of each of these. Since they would not need to be sturdy in the field, decoratives could be more artistic and more time spent making them. Consequently, these decoys are superb examples of three-dimensional arts.

Preening Pintail drake by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1900-1910. Estimated value at auction: $500,000 to $800,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

Preening Pintail drake by A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952), East Harwich, Ma., circa 1900-1910. Estimated value at auction: $500,000 to $800,000. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)

It is believed he took commissions from H.V. Long as early as 1895. A Canada goose, known as one of the “Long Trinity,” is on offer from Copley in July. It is a nesting goose with sinuous neck. It is estimated to sell between $600,000 to $900,000. Of the two other Canada Geese that complete the trinity, one sold for that $1.13 million mentioned earlier, while the other sold in 2004 for $605,000 at a Guyette Schmidt auction.

Another decoy that probably will go high is a preening Pintail drake with elaborate raised wings, estimated at $500,000 to $900,000. The only other known Pintail of this type was the other mentioned above that sold for $1.13 million.

Other decoys by Crowell from the Long collection in this auction include a Yellowlegs in a calling position, two classic Black-bellied plovers, a tucked head merganser and a swimming black duck. The total estimated price of the seven decoys from the Long collection is between $1.6 and 2.6 million. It will be interesting to see what happens in this auction.

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.

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One Comments

  1. Donald F. Lane says:

    As a member of the Potomac Decoy Collectors Association and editor of its newsletter, The Potomac Flyer, I appreciated reading this well written and informative article. Elmer Crowell is virtually a hero to all collectors. Thanks.