Decoys: What Should I Collect and How Much Should I Pay?

When asked “What should I collect?” the answer every dealer and collector will give is: “Collect what you like.” In my case, that means decoys.

Before you rush out and start buying, you’ll also want to know you are not wasting your money. That means you should learn about decoys (or whatever you are interested in); where they come from, who made them, and what they are going for. This is true for people planning to spend thousands per decoy or merely hundreds.

Some people collect decoys by any maker from any part of the country. Some people collect from only one area of the country or one maker. Some people collect only the one species of duck the decoys represent; some only factory decoys. The combinations and permutations are endless.

One thing you should do is to spend the most you can reasonably afford on the decoys you like. Also, you can always “trade up” when you see a better decoy, so don’t pass up a decoy you may not see again soon.

As of this writing, the highest price paid for a single decoy is $1.13 million in 2007 for a decoy made by Elmer Crowell. Other decoy makers who can command six-figure prices include Joe Lincoln, Lee Dudley, and John Blair among others. Other big names that bring big bucks are the Ward brothers, Ira Hudson, George Warin, Charles Perdew, and Mason Factory.

This Pintail drake decoy by an unknown maker realized $125,000.00 at Guyette and Schmidt auction this November. (Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt)

This Pintail drake decoy by an unknown maker realized $125,000.00 at Guyette and Schmidt auction this November. (Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt)

Decoys by unknown makers have also pulled in high prices; one recent Pintail drake from Kankakee, Ill. realized $125,000.00 at auction this November. But there are many beautiful and collectible decoys out there for very reasonable prices, including some made by the above names. Patronize well-known, honest dealers, (yes there are honest antique dealers out there!) who will give a guarantee, especially if you are spending a lot of money.

Condition is something that can affect the price a great deal. For example, in a recent auction, two Stevens’ goldeneye drakes came up for sale; one sold for $500 the other for $1,300. Condition makes the difference. The first had been repainted early on but the second has most of its original paint. Both have expected amounts of wear. Another example is the range of prices of four Crowell black ducks in the same auction. The prices were $1,000, $1,700, and $13,000 for a pair. Then consider, what makes one of his decoys go over a million dollars? There are truly exceptional, one-of-a-kind decoys out there and people with the money to pay for them.

So after all this, how do you determine what to spend on that decoy in the window? I price my decoys by a combination of ways. Twenty years experience helps, but I also check prices realized from reputable decoy auction houses. I look at prices of comparable decoys over the last few years. A one-off price—either low or high—does not indicate value. Also, they must be of similar condition, which is difficult to tell from pictures. Information, as you see from the above, is critical.

The most important reason to buy that decoy that caught your eye is you like and appreciate it, that it gives you pleasure to look at it and you want to take it home.

The main thing is to have fun!

Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys and amputation instruments and kits.

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  1. Sharon Bollmann says:

    I didn’t see a mention of Clarence Bauer. He is also a well-known, famous duck decoy carver.

  2. Arthur Nevin says:

    I am a collector and a dealer and very much enjoyed your article. It is the best advice for the average collector I’ve ever read. Art Nevin

  3. John Leader says:

    I have had a family collection about 1940 of Al Ries’s factory hens and drakes – working decoys. Any thoughts or comments on Al Ries. Also how would I value this collection should we wish to sell it.

  4. Gary Dalton says:

    I have decoys from Lem Ward out of Crisfield, Md.
    Is there any experts that I can talk to?