Preening Pintail drake by A. Elmer Crowell, circa 1900-1910, sold for $546,250 at auction in July of 2009. (Photo courtesy Copley Fine Art Auctions)
Collectors will forever debate who was America’s greatest decoy maker, but my vote goes to Anthony Elmer Crowell, who carved and painted waterfowl decoys of exceptional quality for more than 40 years.
Crowell was born in 1862 in East Harwich, Mass., and lived there all his life. He grew up in the years following the Civil War, when Cape Cod was far removed from the busy resort area it is today. His father was a fisherman and cranberry grower, but Crowell was not interested in either occupation.
Crowell was an avid nature lover and bird hunter. There were no game laws in those days, and he shot robins, doves, chickadees and quail. He was an accurate shot and killed his first black duck at age 12. By 14 he was hunting from a duck blind that he had built on a stretch of Pleasant Lake shoreline owned by his father. It was at this time that he began making wooden decoys to use along with his live decoys. He enjoyed many good hunting seasons on Cape Cod.
A. Elmer Crowell, surrounded by some of his decorative and working decoys painting one of his creations.
In 1898, at age 36, Crowell began running a hunting camp and blind for Dr. John C. Phillips, who became one of his first decoys buyers. The camp was situated on Wenham Lake north of Boston. Later, he ran a blind for Dr. Phillips on Oldham Pond in Hanover.
Crowell’s decoys are divided into three periods: the unmarked or pre-stamp period, followed by his oval stamp, and rectangular stamp years.
The legendary carver produced his finest works during the first stage of his career. Crowell’s ducks and geese at this time featured carved primaries and tail feathers, heads in sleeping and preening positions and superb painting. (The spectacular Canada goose pictured is an example.) Crowell’s shorebirds during this period are his best ever. In fact, many collectors believe they are the finest shorebirds ever made by any carver.
After 10 years with Dr. Phillips, Crowell started carving full time. About 1915 he began to sign his work with a branding iron. The oval brand measures 3 ½ by 7/8 inches and reads: “A. Elmer Crowell, Decoys, East Harwich, Mass.”—all in quarter-inch letters. His decoys after 1915 lacked carved wings and tail details, but still had excellent paint. His working decoys were made of white cedar pine heads. All had rasp marks on the head and breast to imply feathers.
Crowell switched to the smaller rectangular stamp in the 1930s. It reads: “A.E. Crowell, East Harwich, Mass.” This stamp was also used by his son Cleon, who became Elmer’s protégé and partner.
Although collectors recognize Elmer Crowell as an excellent carver, it is his painting that receives the highest marks. His only professional art instruction came during his teens, when he took 24 painting lessons from a Miss Emily King at a cost of $1 per session.
Before 1900 there were no other decoys makers in the Cape Cod area that might have influenced Crowell. For this reason, experts believe that his patterns, and carving and painting techniques were original. He applied thick house-paint to his decoys, they dry-brushed the paint to impart a distinctive feathery appearance.
This pair of circa 1918-1922 racy swimming red-breasted mergansers by A. E. Crowell garnered $37,375 in July of 2012.
Later in his career, when the demand for working decoys decreased, Crowell concentrated on decorative woodcarvings. He created life-size songbirds, shorebirds and waterfowl that incorporated grace and style. Almost all were mounted on bases. In addition, he carved a series of miniatures featuring bird species found on Cape Cod. The series included ducks, shorebirds and songbirds, 25 in each category.
Crowell continued to carve until the mid-1940s when his arthritis got so bad he could no longer hold a knife. He died in 1951, at age 89.
Over his long career, Crowell produced more decoys than any other carver in history. Although his decoys number in the thousands, they continue to increase in value. A typical black duck in fine condition will brought $2,000-$3,000 (in 1986) and a pintail from the same era could bring $4,000-$6,000. But there may never have been a ceiling for some of his outstanding creations. At the Doyle Auction in New York on April 16, 1986, a Crowell turned-head, carved-wing black duck sold for $70,400 to establish a new auction record for a single decoy at the time.
By 2009, those prices more than tripled, as a nesting Canada goose by Crowell realized $661,250 and a preening pintail came in at $546,250 in an auction hosted by Copely Fine Art Auctions. In another Copley, this time in July of 2012, an extremely miniature great blue heron made by Crowell sold for $31,050—setting a new auction record for a Crowell miniature and breaking the previous mark, set about five minutes earlier, when an American egret by Crowell with superb original paint, 8 ½ inches tall, sold for $25,875,
This very rare miniature great blue heron by renowned American carver A. Elmer Crowell set an auction record for the artist, gaveling for $31,050 at the Summer Decoy Auction held July of 2012 by Decoys Unlimited, Inc.
This American egret by Crowell with superb original paint, 8 ½ inches tall, sold for $25,875 in July of 2012, which held the title as the most expensive Crowell miniature for about five minutes.
When judged by all the standards that collectors use—originality, quality of workmanship and volume of carvings—Anthony Elmer Crowell has to rank as America’s finest decoy maker.
Alan Haid is a former decoy columnist for Sporting Classics magazine. His extensive decoy collection will be exhibited at the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston, S.C., in 2013.
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