Identification of Decoys by Region
Just as fine artists influence each other to create a distinctive regional style, so too do duck decoy makers. Regional similarities are identifiable and include shape, construction methods, wood or other materials used, paint job, etc. Decoy carvers worked in the area they hunted, whether they were professional or gunning hunters or weekend hunters. The regions were created by the duck habitat they frequented to hunt. The regions included North Carolina, Virginia, the Chesapeake Bay area, New England, New Jersey, Delaware River, Maine, upper New York state and Ontario, Long Island, Michigan, Illinois River, the Pacific Coast, and many others. It is not the political lines so much as rivers, marshes, lakes, and other duck habitat that make up the real regions. We just have to call them something.
To best determine the region a decoy is from, look at the profile. Ultimately, you may discover the maker. (If you are sending a photo for an appraisal, it must be a decent profile shot. Others are only secondary). Other clues include whether the decoy is solid, or hollow; cut down the middle or possesses a flat baseboard; rounded body; flat bottom; inletted lead weight; attached exterior weight; painted or taxidermy eyes; carved features; carved feathers; carved wings; solid blocks of color or feather and comb painting; different head attachments, etc. All of these construction methods contribute to identification. Obviously, this can get quite complex. However, there are some regional style differences that stick out like the proverbial sore thumb.
One region that uses a hollow decoy almost exclusively is New Jersey, with the decoy possessing a seam parallel to the water line and at mid body. New Jersey decoys also have a torpedo shaped body with the lead weight inletted into the body to keep it streamlined. In stark contrast to this is the flat bottom of the Michigan decoys of the Great Lakes. Some of these can be hollowed out but not round bottomed. Many also have keels due to the rough weather on the Lakes, and the lead weight is attached to this. Many times these decoys are oversized also due to the wave action. Look for these differences.
The decoy on the left is a Michigan canvasback drake (maker unknown), and the one on the right is a female bluebill by H.V. Shourds of New Jersey. Even considering the species difference, the shape difference between the two is impossible to miss. Value on the Shourds is $600, considering crazing of the paint, while value on the canvasback is $125.
The bottom of the Shourds bluebill shows the inletted lead weight.
Another group of decoys with very distinct characteristics are the wire and canvas decoys from North Carolina. Not all North Carolina decoys are made this way; many are solid wood and many are rather plain. The wire and canvas decoy however, is almost always from North Carolina and many times quite super. One fabulous exception to “rather plain” wood decoys in North Carolina are the decoys made by the Dudley’s of Knott’s Island, NC. And these decoys are always SUPER!
This is a Canada goose made from canvas stretched over wire ribs attached to a flat bottom. It has a solid wood head and neck. It is the stereotypical canvas North Carolina decoy. Value is $600.
This canvasback decoy is by one of the Dudley brothers. The head is a professional replacement. Even with a major restoration, such as a head replacement, the decoy went for $2000 in 2008; an indication of the popularity of the maker. If the decoy was all original it would command five or even six figures. A Dudley ruddy duck made $269,000 at a 2008 Guyette Schmidt auction.
Study of lots of decoys and lots of pictures with accurate identification is the best way I know to learn the regional differences between decoys. Ask a decoy dealer for help as well. Dealers love to talk about their stuff. It is why we are in the business; making a living at it is just icing on the cake.
There are many good books out there to use for study as well as auction catalogues and pictures on the internet. I recommend “Decoys of the mid-Atlantic Region,” by Fleckenstein, 1979, “Working Decoys of the Jersey Coast and Delaware Valley,” by Gosner, 1985, and “Southern Decoys of Virginia and the Carolinas,” by Fleckenstein, 1983, to cover the decoys I have talked about here. There are many others as well.
Once you have determined the region your decoy comes from, looking closer at the details can help identify the maker. Decoy collecting is very satisfying on many levels; they are beautiful examples of American folk art, the hunt is exciting and the research or “detective” work involved is fun. And that is the most important part.
Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments.
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