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Wednesday, August 5, 2009

Factory Decoys Offer another Collecting Avenue

There are as many strategies to collecting decoys as there are decoys. For example, one can collect by area made, maker or species. One popular area of decoy collecting is the factory-made decoy. Factory decoys are those decoys commercially made by machine and advertised for sale in sporting magazines. This really began around 1870, due to the high demand for decoys during the explosion of market gunning. Many wood decoys were turned out on a lathe at a time then the detail carving was finished by hand. Hand- or spray-painting finished them.
One exception to the rule in machine production are the decoys made by Harvey Stevens of Weedsport, NY. These decoys were handmade starting in the 1860s. By the 1880s, they were being advertised for sale in national magazines. These decoys have always been considered by collectors to be factory decoys because of this advertisement. At the height of his business, Stevens employed eight men in the carving and painting of these decoys. They have a style all their own and are quite collectible, selling for thousands of dollars in good condition.

These four Stevens decoys, two goldeneye drakes, top, and a bluebill drake and hen, bottom, are in superb condition. They ranged in price from $7,500 to $10,250 at auction. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
Another early factory, owned by William J. Mason, made decoys that are probably the most popular factory decoy for collectors today. Mason began business in 1896 in Detroit, Mich. and closed doors in 1924. This definite and short period of production is very attractive to collectors. The decoys were machine-turned on a duplicating lathe then the details were hand carved. The paint was also hand done in a very attractive style. They came in five quality grades, premier grade, challenge grade, No. 1 glass eye, No. 2 tack eye and No. 3 paint eye. Today, a premier grade bluebill drake in good condition goes for $1,000 to $2,500 at an in house auction. And a No. 2 tack eye bluebill drake goes for $400 to $600 in good condition. Rare models, rare species or exceptional condition can bring these prices up exponentially.

Mason premier grade bluebill drake (top) and paint eye bluebill drake (above). Note the scalloped paint swirled on the breast of the premier grade decoy and the straight, plainer paint on the paint eye decoy. Photos courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
William E. Pratt Decoy Co. bought Mason’s patterns and equipment when it closed the factory doors in 1924. Pratt was later bought out by the Animal Trap Co. of America in 1939. They made decoys under the name of Victor until the mid 1960s with a hiatus during World War Two. The Pratt decoys were similar in looks to the Mason, but never had the style or quality. The circular blade marks from the duplicating lathe were left on Animal Trap’s Victor instead of hand carving them smooth. Very simple painting was at first done by hand then by airbrush. The Victor decoy is very easily identifiable and makes an inexpensive first decoy.
One other factory I will mention here is the Wildfowler Decoys of Saybrook, Conn. This company manufactured truly lovely decoys. They made many species and many models of decoys. They also had two finishes; No.1 was hand -painted with feathering, and the No. 2 model was spray-painted and called the gunners model. The decoys were made from white pine until WWII. The company produced gunstocks for the government during the war. After the war they began using government surplus balsa wood for the bodies and white birch for the heads. There were three other owners of Wildfowler Decoys at three other locations before the company closed in 1993. Each had its own brand that can help the collector with dates and locations.

A Wildfowler blackduck decoy is on the left and a low head pintail drake is on the right. These decoys as a lot only went for $500 at a 2003 Guyette and Schmidt auction. Photo courtesy of Guyette and Schmidt.
There are many other factories that made, and some still do make decoys. And there are many factory decoys available; some more collectible than others. Many were very utilitarian, others quite beautiful, some practical and some absurd. For example, on the practical side is the tinnie; a tin shorebird decoy that, when unfolded, would nest with others for ease of transport. When folded closed to form the bird, a stick was added to the body for deployment in the mud.
For the absurd, a decoy with a rubber tube and bulb running to the hunter in the blind. When he squeezed the bulb the decoy would quack! If you wish to explore this area of collecting further, excellent books on the subject include “American Factory Decoys,” by Henry A. Fleckenstein Jr. and “Mason Decoys, A Complete Pictorial Guide,” by Russ Goldberger and Alan Haid. Factory decoys provide an easily documented, satisfying collectible still at affordable prices.
Laura Collum is a Worthologist who specializes in decoys, nautical and scientific instruments

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