How Can You Tell If Decoys Are Real?
By Laura Collum
People who come in my shop look at all the decoys and often ask, “How can you tell if they are real?” Apart from the metaphysical question, what people mean by that is “are they old and were they really used as duck hunting decoys?”
There are several things to look at in dealing with decoys. But it is like dealing with any antique or collectible: First look at how they are made, and then look at the condition. In my shop, “antique” decoys were made from approximately 1890 to 1945. “New” decoys are those made after 1945.
Decoys were (and still are) used to bring wild ducks close enough to hunters to shoot. They were deployed in rivers, lakes, bays and even in fields of corn stubble. They were used in numbers depending how many the hunter could practically carry where he was going to hunt. Professional hunters used huge numbers and special boats as well. To keep them all from floating away, the decoys were joined together with rope or twine and weighted down with iron or lead weights at the ends of these so called “rigs.” So, when looking at how they are made, look for loops, nails or hooks that were used to tie them together. This would be underneath and toward the front or breast. They should also have a weight on the bottom and sometimes a keel with or without weight. If they don’t have these, do they have holes that tell of a hook, weight or keel in its past?
Decoys were made of many different woods and other materials as well. Cork and balsa were even used. Some in North Carolina were made from wood wire and canvas. But they will have hooks and weights or the indication of them. Decoys were constructed differently in different parts of the country, but that is another story.
“Antique” decoys were painted with oil-based paint; many times just house paint. Latex or rubber-based paint came along much later. They were painted in large blocks of color or painted finely with every feather delineated. It was up to the maker. So, take a look at the condition of the decoy. Does it show use? Was it hit with lead shot, banged up from being thrown about, chewed on by a Lab puppy? Is it in perfect condition? If it was ever shot over it will show some signs of wear. And if not shot over, it will still exhibit patina.
So, is it a real decoy? This information will help you decide. Also, talk to the dealer. Ask questions. Dealers love to talk about their stuff! Find books on the subject and read up. Look at the pictures as well; get to know the shapes, paint jobs, the gestalt of decoys. But most important if you are looking to collect, have fun!
Laura Collum is a WorthPoint Worthologist specializing in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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