Delaware River Decoys Differ from Their Coastal Brethren

This John Blair, Jr. pintail that sold for $47,500 at Guyette and Schmidt’s July auction 2009. This price was achieved due to its very good condition plus very desirable provenance. The decoy was acquired from the Blair family in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

This John Blair, Jr. pintail that sold for $47,500 at Guyette and Schmidt’s July auction 2009. This price was achieved due to its very good condition plus very desirable provenance. The decoy was acquired from the Blair family in the 1980s. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

I recently wrote about the New Jersey decoys in general and of the coastal bays in particular (Hollow, Light-Weight Decoys Valued on the Jersey Coast and Delaware Valley). There is a separate tradition of decoy making in New Jersey and Pennsylvania that centers on the southern part of the Delaware River. These decoys are also hollow and made from two slabs nailed together and caulked as their coastal counterparts (with an exception mentioned in this article). They are different mainly in being more robust and having wingtips and tails carved in some species.

This region of decoy making is the 20-mile section of the river between Trenton to the north and Delanco to the south. Hunting on the Delaware River was done by sculling and the making of sculling oars became a specialty, as well. A two-man sculling boat by Jess Heisler, a decoy maker, looked a lot like the sneak box of the coast. Boats made in Bordentown (a decoy center on the river) were 12- to 14-foot double-ended vessels that were half decked and lapstraked. Some called them “banana boats” due to their shape. Hunting and decoy carving was done mainly by sportsmen, not professionals such as the baymen on the coast. Luckily for the collector, some of these sportsmen signed their decoys.

These river decoys are more realistic to the shape of the real duck on the water than the more-stylized coastal birds. “In cross section they are more broadly rounded below water than coastal decoys. The puddle ducks have the wingtips raised, with stylized carved detail,” wrote Kenneth Gosner. Later in the development of the Delaware River decoy, some makers flattened the bottoms and some added a wood keel. The river currents also affected the shape of the decoys and where the weight was placed on the bottom. Weights on these decoys were flat pads nailed to the bottom midway along the body to near the tail depending on the swiftness of the currents in the particular part of the river where they were used. The majority of ducks hunted on the river were black ducks; therefore black ducks make up the majority of the decoys found.

These are two Delaware River black duck decoys, the upper one by Dan English, and the lower one by Tom Fitzpatrick. In 2001 the English decoy realized $1,500 and the Fitzpatrick decoy realized $1,600 at a Guyette and Schmidt auction. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

These are two Delaware River black duck decoys, the upper one by Dan English, and the lower one by Tom Fitzpatrick. In 2001 the English decoy realized $1,500 and the Fitzpatrick decoy realized $1,600 at a Guyette and Schmidt auction. Photos courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

As I have mentioned in other decoy articles, there are distinct styles or schools of decoy making. The Blair school of the Delaware River is based on John Blair, Sr. (1842-1928) who lived on the Pennsylvania side of the river. His son also carved lovely decoys. There seem to be some attribution issues and many unknown makers of the Blair school, but the style itself is quite evident. See “Working Decoys of the Jersey Coast and the Delaware Valley,” by Kenneth Gosner for an in depth discussion of the John Blair school. The elder Blair is known to have made decoys with three slabs, as well as two, and joined them with dowels. His decoys differ from the standard Delaware River decoy in that his are long and lean.

This black duck decoy is by John Blair, Sr. This decoy has the long lean look of the senior Blair and is typical of the Blair school. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

This black duck decoy is by John Blair, Sr. This decoy has the long lean look of the senior Blair and is typical of the Blair school. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

The decoys of John English (1849-1915) are considered by many collectors to epitomize the Delaware River decoy. His son Daniel English (1883-1962) also carved decoys, and they are equally collectable. John Dawson painted many of John English’s decoys and painted a triangle on the underside of the bill as a signature, a good thing to look for. He also carved his own decoys, but they are rather stiff in aspect; it was his painting that he excelled at. Other makers of the English school include William Quinn, C. Ridgeway (Reg) Marter, and Jess Heisler. Marter signed his decoys with a brass tag attached to the bottom of the decoy.

These four decoys are typical of the Delaware River region. The upper one is by John English, the two middle ones are unknown makers of the Blair school, and the lower is by Tom Fitzpatrick. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

These four decoys are typical of the Delaware River region. The upper one is by John English, the two middle ones are unknown makers of the Blair school, and the lower is by Tom Fitzpatrick. Photos courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

The Bordentown school is centered on the maker Charles Black (1882-1956). His decoys, as well as those of the school, have a flat bottom, have pad-weight placement is at the rear and many have the tail carved from the lower slab. His decoys were boxy; think barge. Charles Allen is another maker from this area whose paint jobs are exceptional in his later decoys. Some carvers changed their decoys little over the years. John McLoughlin, who began carving in his early teens, experimented and evolved over the years and made decorative decoys as well.

This decoy is by Charles Black. Note the barge-like shape of the body. It only realized $450 at auction in 2001 due to the condition of the paint. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

This decoy is by Charles Black. Note the barge-like shape of the body. It only realized $450 at auction in 2001 due to the condition of the paint. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

Delaware River decoys do well at auction (selling in the low four-figures) as long as condition is original and good. Decoys by the Blairs, senior and junior, can bring the highest prices, with a Blair Jr. pintail (with excellent provenance) realizing $47,500 at a Guyette and Schmidt auction in July 2009.

This is a black duck decoy attributed to Robert Freirich from Tullytown Pa. It realized $2,250 at auction in 2001 due to condition and the “it” factor. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

This is a black duck decoy attributed to Robert Freirich from Tullytown Pa. It realized $2,250 at auction in 2001 due to condition and the “it” factor. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.

I noticed at this recent auction that English decoys and those made by others, were not doing well when the paint was not original, even with a professional repaint or restoration. This difficult economy is probably playing a big part in that. As with any antique or collectible, provenance, condition and rarity are the main factors that determine value of an item. However, just as important are fads or trends and the “it” factor. Have fun!

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

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  1. Ms. Collum,

    Pelican Publishing is working to put out the biography of the greatest living Delaware River hunter/carver, Vincent Gianetto III in a collectible book with photos of his book. Gianetto’s early life was spent around river rats such as Tom Fitzpatrick,John Fischer, and Denver Malone.

    We are expecting the book out this Fall in time for hunting season and I was hoping you would be able to provide a short blurb for the book.

    If yo are interested, please let me know. My name is Melanie and I work in the Promotion Department. mglotfelty@pelicanpub.com

    Thank you.

    • Kent Nall says:

      Hello Melanie Glotfelty, My name is Kent Nall and I own fifteen Delaware River decoys made back sometime I believe around 1980-1990 I got them from my late dad, we used to do alot of duck hunting together since I was very young boy. I’m curious about the value of these wooden decoys, their in very very nice condition; I have 9 drake lesser scaups and 6 hens. All the ducks are in feeding position. Any information provided to me regarding the value based on the information I’ve provided would be helpful, if you need some photos I can provide that as well. Thank You, sincerely Kent Nall my email is 1kentnall@gmail.com or you can call me at 561-249-0323, Thank You again, looking forward from hereing back from you.