Gus Wilson and One of His 100-Year-Old Decoys

A white-winged scoter decoy by Augustus Wilson held by yours truly in my shop.

Recently I received a call from a woman who had a decoy she wanted more information on. A local auction house referred her to me. She was a delightful woman who, as a nurse, was gifted this lovely decoy. Times being what they are, she wondered about selling it. She sent pictures via e-mail after we talked on the phone, when she said she the decoy was from Maine. When I saw the pictures, I agreed.

From the photos, I guessed it probably was a Gus Wilson white-winged scoter. However, since I had never had a Wilson in my hands, I told her I would do some research. She agreed to bring the decoy to my shop on the following Friday. Since Gus Wilson decoys are highly sought after and can be quite valuable, I did not want to raise false hopes so I did not mention the name over the phone. When she arrived and placed the decoy in my hands I knew it was, indeed, a Gus Wilson decoy. A really good decoy just sings. I don’t know how else to describe it. Since she wanted to get as much as possible for the decoy I suggested she contact the Guyette and Schmidt decoy auction house.

The basic telltale indicators for a Gus Wilson decoy include carved eyes, inletted head, incised mandible separations (carved line to indicate top and bottom bill), a flat, unfinished bottom and gently carved wings with simple sleek body lines.

His paint job is usually simple as well, the scoter being simple black and white. But he also carved completely raised wings, carved heads tilted in different directions, preening forward or back, rocking heads and sometimes placed carved mussels or leather seaweed in the bill. The crests on his mergansers were carved or made from horsehair or leather. The most beautiful paint jobs he did were on his mergansers. He was often quite frugal in the use of wood to make his decoys, joining scraps together to make one piece big enough for the body. But he was certainly less frugal with his time when carving the heads. There is even carving under the bills and in the forward preeners; the only way to see the carving is with a mirror. Apparently, he stamped some decoys “made by Augustus A. Wilson, S. Portland Me.” and there are other decoys carved with a W with a horizontal line through it. But most Gus Wilson decoys went unsigned.

The scoter on the right exhibits the telltales of a Gus Wilson decoy including flat unfinished bottom, inletted head, carved eyes, and raised wings. The black duck on the left is one of his rocking heads. Prices realized in July of this year were $3,000 for the rocking head and $3,800 for the scoter. (Photo courtesy of Guyette Schmidt)

Wilson (1864-1950) was born in Tremont, Maine, on Mt. Desert Island, and was listed in a 1900 census as a fisherman. He was also known as a boat builder and outdoorsman. He spent his life along the Maine coast, even spending 20 years in the lighthouse service. He carved for more than 60 years and even though the basic telltales remained the same, certain stylistic changes occurred. The early years are characterized by bold body shape and various treatments to the bill. The next phase included more experimentation with head position. The decoys of his final years were less well made as a whole, however, he innovated a swivel head that could be placed in any position. The coastal birds he carved included scoters, oldsquaw, mergansers, black ducks and eiders. My favorites are the early scoters with the mergansers a close second.

Merganser by Gus Wilson realized $2,700 at the July Guyette Schmidt auction this year. Note the “seaweed” in its bill. (Photo courtesy of Guyette Schmidt)

“Our” decoy—the one I was appraising—is in the forward preening position and there is exceptional carving in the bill area, which makes it a very nice decoy. The extra carving and the bold body indicate it was made around 1900 in the Monhegan style.

The fine head on this Wilson scoter should help to realize the pre sale estimate of $5,000 to $8,000. (Photo courtesy of Guyette Schmidt)

It is in good condition, with some damage to the tail. It is among the items up for bid at Guyette and Schmidt on Nov. 10 and 11. It will be interesting to see how well this decoy does. Keep antiquing, keep your eyes open and have fun!

For more detailed discussion on Gus Wilson and his decoys see “The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys,” edited by Joe Engers. Modern Publishing, New York.1990, and “Gus Wilson-Folk Artist Renown late 19th and early 20th Century Decoy Carver,” Gene and Linda Kangas. Creekside Art Gallery Blog. 1994.

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

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