Antiques

Maine-Carved Decoys Are Worthy of Your Mantel

Not just for the birds — local folk art decoys have a singular quality collectors covet, appraiser John Bottero writes.

antique duck decoys

ABOVE Medomak Gallery in Warren specializes in antique and vintage decoys, like these from the ’20s and ’30s (clockwise from rear left): Merganser, Maurice Hight; red-breasted merganser, Willie Ross; scoter, unknown maker; eider drake, unknown maker; merganser, Maurice Hight; Goldeneye drake, James H. Whitney.

TEXT BY JOHN BOTTERO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY MICHAEL D. WILSON

Thousands of years ago, Native Americans floated duck impersonators, woven from cattails and grass, in still waters to lure birds within range of their arrows. In the 18th and 19th centuries, colonists armed with muskets and shotguns picked up the practice, carving decoys from softwoods, such as cedar and pine. Originally a food staple, waterfowl sailed in great flocks in many regions. As their numbers diminished, hunting became more of a sport. In 1918, the Migratory Bird Treaty Act banned commercial hunting, and wooden decoys dwindled after World War II, when molded versions were introduced.

Wherever there were decoys, regional characteristics evolved that help today’s collectors identify their origins. Maine examples tend to be large, sturdy enough to withstand rough waters, and folksier than most. Mergansers, like those by Chebeague Island’s Willie Ross and South Portland’s Maurice Hight, above, were a local specialty. But the finest pieces are by South Portland lighthouse keeper Gus Wilson, who whittled his birds in inventive preening and stretching positions; his most recognized work, a Monhegan eider, often has a mussel in its bill.

Primitive decoys with paint loss and birdshot holes may fetch a few hundred dollars, while pristine ones can garner four- and five-digit prices. As for decoys by Wilson, who once sold his works for 75 cents apiece to Portland’s Walker & Evans Sporting Goods Store — some have commanded hundreds of thousands of dollars.

See more Maine decoys at medomakgallery.com.

John BotteroJohn Bottero is the former vice president of Thomaston Place Auction Galleries

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