Eye on Antiques: American Decoys

Decoys are sculpture. They were made to convey, often at a considerable distance on the water, an immediately convincing sense of a species' form and behavior. A hunter (or more importantly, a live bird) should be convinced by a decoy at a glance and should remain convinced by further consideration. By the time questions arise, it should be too late for the quarry to escape. The best decoys deceive the longest and provoke the fewest questions.

The first criterion for collecting, therefore, is form. Exacting realism is not the goal, however. Decoys are symbols of birds. The best working decoys reduce a bird to its essential components, capturing it in a sort of sculptural shorthand. The silhouetted lines of a decoy should be pleasing to the eye. The collector should look at a bird from across the room, squint at it, and consider its silhouette before examining it more closely.

Condition is important but secondary. Because decoys were used in groups and many decoy makers produced multiple copies of the same species form, it is often possible to compare the conditions of like examples. Signs of wear are often desirable. A shot hole or a mark where a lead line was wrapped around the bird tells something of its history in the field. Some collectors prefer pristine examples, while others like a used but not abused bird. One old collecting dictum suggests, "Take them out of the rig, not out of the maker's shop."

As tools, decoys are also tactile objects, made to be held and used. A well-made decoy feels good in the hands. Experienced collectors will pick a bird up and roll it over and over in their hands, touching every part of it, considering its balance and heft as well as the way its surface feels. The great collector William Mackey, author of the indispensable American Bird Decoys, advised that holding a decoy with one's eyes closed was the most important test a collector could perform.

Over the past fifty years, collectors have honored a pantheon of carvers, each of whom created a distinctive personal decoy style. Outstanding decoys by such craftsmen bring premium prices, often ranging well into six figures. Among the most highly regarded nineteenth-century carvers are Albert Laing of Connecticut, Nathan Cobb Jr. of Virginia, Robert Elliston of Illinois, John English of New Jersey, John Blair of Pennsylvania, George Warin of Ontario, and William Bowman and Obediah Verity of Long Island. Cobb, Bowman, and Verity carved shorebirds as well as ducks and geese, while others carved only floating lures. In addition to the Crowells, Perdews, and Wards, other twentieth-century giants include Shang Wheeler of Connecticut, Gus Wilson of Maine, Harry Shourds of New Jersey, Joseph Lincoln of Massachusetts, Ira Hudson of Virginia, Hucks Caines of South Carolina, John Tax of Minnesota, Thomas Chambers of Ontario, Charles Walker of Illinois, and Charles Bergman of Oregon.

Of this group only the Crowells, Hudson, Shourds, and Lincoln carved shorebirds.

Game Boards as Folk Art

Nina Fletcher Little, a premier collector of American decorative arts for sixty years, describes a game board she bought in 1940. It was for sale among the possessions of a New Bedford family whose history went back to whaling days. "We took home," she writes in her book Little by Little, "a signed and dated ship's checkerboard, complete with its original wooden checkers. The painted lettering around four sides indicated that it was used on the ship Huzzah and had been made by Abrm Tucker of Dartmouth, County of Bristol, January 24, 1824."

Thirteen inches square, handsomely lettered around the playing surface, the board is really a shallow box with Huzzah on its little storage drawer for the pieces. Now that's a game board: we know its who, what, when, and where--it even has the original checkers. All of it adds up to palpable history (and probably five figures if it were sold today. We don't know what it cost then).

Game boards--the hand-painted kind--are the very definition of eye appeal because of their graphics and color. With the added visual seasoning of charming irregularities, stenciled gilt ornament, striping, compass stars and sunbursts, they are an irresistible feast for the eye. Game boards are instant folk art on a wall. (When was the last time you actually played checkers on an old board?) Because of their appeal, buying is a lot like playing--it's fun and it's easy to lose.

Game boards, especially checkerboards, are the easiest folk art to fake. They were rarely signed or dated, most often simple contrasting squares, homemade of scrap board with the playing surface painted on, sometimes scribed into the wood, sometimes with decorated borders, often with molding--around the four sides and separating the playing field from the rest of the board. Most boards have some or all of the above and more. Therefore, details count. Is the board you're looking at genuinely old (those on the market these days are late nineteenth century and after), an unfortunately anonymous reproduction never meant to deceive, or a fraud?

The most obvious detail is wear. Only recently have game boards been hung on the wall like paintings--old ones were used, and should show it. Patina on a game board is desirable, and it means an old, worn surface, with cracks in the paint, and dirt in the corners. It should have what Kenneth Manko, a dealer in Moody, Maine, who specializes in folk art, calls "explainable wear."

If it's a board with nailed molding around the sides, nails (and holes where they are missing) should be consistent with the age of the board--the nineteenth century used cut nails, different in appearance from wire nails and even modern cut nails. If it's a rectangular board with breadboard ends to prevent warping, the ends on an old one will show some slight shrinkage, just as they do on furniture.

Yes, but. Old nails could have been recycled; surfaces, particularly painted ones, can be so convincingly faked that they fool even the experts; genuinely old wood (cut thicker than modern lumber) could have been recycled into a new "old" game board. And an otherwise old board might have been spruced up somewhere along the line, affecting both the look of the paint and the price. Is what you're looking at "explainable"?

Scudder Smith, the editor of Antiques and the Arts Weekly (better known as The Newtown Bee), collects old game boards; he has looked at many over the years. To his practiced eye, paint surface and color are the important elements. ("I don't care what the game is," he says.) He is wary of those he calls "too good to be old." Considering the price range of old game boards--from about $300 to $5,000 and up, it's essential to examine as many as you can.

A two-sided board is generally twice as much as a one-sided. Pachisi, inherently more decorative than a grid of squares, and not as common, is therefore more expensive. Patterned boards, trays or drawers, game boards painted on the top of tables, the extras that make it more--make it more. Think of the variations in design and hand work in quilts, the retouching and parts-exchange that fancy chairs are susceptible to. Consider how the board was made, not played. Honor any suspicions you have with questions and expect answers that make sense (including an honest "I don't know" from the dealer who has seen a lot) before you indulge your enthusiasm.

As the person who taught me how to play checkers always said, "Look before you leap."


Other Travel Tips: