There were carvers in all the major American flyways, including Louisiana and along the Pacific Coast, but most were centered in the Northeast, in the Delaware River area, and in Maryland and Massachusetts. Among the makers collectors should know are Crowell of Cape Cod, the Ward Brothers (Steve and Lem), August "Gus" Wilson, , Sr. and the Mason Decoy Factory. McCleery lamented that he knew of no great Texas decoy carvers.

Inc., the world's premier decoy auction company, will host its annual fall auction in Easton, Md., Wednesday and Thursday. Collectors from around the world (and yes, from Texas) are expected to attend. Some 850 lots will be on the block. will be there, wouldn't miss it.

That said, collectors with an avid interest but fewer dollars to invest can still find good specimens for much less Buy Women Canada Goose Resolute Parka Black Australia folding money. Prime decoys can be had for a few thousand dollars. Guyette and Schmidt advertises decoys in the under $500 range, and the firm's vice president, , says decoys can be found in shops and shows for "$25, $50, $100 on up."

Described as the only completely indigenous American folk art, the first decoys were crafted by American Indians more than a millennium ago. White settlers adapted the idea, carving bird replicas in wood (rather than wrapping bird skins around reeds) to attract waterfowl into range. Now the decoys themselves are the subject of enthusiastic hunting, appreciated by collectors as antiques and as art.

Joel Barber's Wild Fowl Decoys (Terrydale Press, $24.95), first published in 1934 and still an important reference.

A few carvers today produce high quality decoys, their appeal aimed more at folk art enthusiasts than the old school sportsman collectors like Ron Gard and the late James McCleery. Both men appreciated the older decoys, though they differed on how well used they can look and still be acceptable.

Resources and other info

The sale of McCleery's holdings, dubbed "the Emerald City of decoy collections" by Sotheby's folk art expert , set the standard against which all decoys (and auctions) are judged.

The McCleery Auction, produced and edited by Ronald J. Gard and (, $50). Quality hardbound with 100 plus color photographs.

Values also depend on the aesthetic appeal of a decoy, the carver, the rarity. Most decoys were not signed by their makers though some bear the stamp of their owners, making retrieval from a lake easier so study is required to become familiar with the characteristics and artistic styles of important carvers.

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Original might not mean mint. Decoys with slight paint loss and shot marks can still bring a premium; those that have been repainted or touched up will not.

"Jim wanted everything to be as close to perfect as possible," Gard says. "Me, I like the worn ones and the ones that may be missing an eye, or the paint's rubbed off from just good hunting use. I like the history of the decoy."

Should you find an old duck decoy in PawPaw's shed, don't take it to the lake, give it to the kids or, heaven forbid, let the dog play with it. It could be junk, worthless as the cracked cane pole next to it. Or it could be a prime specimen of American folk art valued at half a million dollars or more.

The effect on decoy carvers was profound, with many going out of business and others adapting to produce more decorative birds meant to adorn mantels rather than function as lures.

He advises would be collectors to go for original condition. "A decoy is three dimensional art, and condition is primary. The more original the more valuable."

The market hunting era ended in 1918, when federal legislation stopped interstate sale of wild fowl and hunting of all shorebirds except the golden plover, yellowlegs and blackbellied plover. shorebirds. Bird hunting increasingly was regulated by season.

"I just bought things around here that I saw at gun shows and antique shows. I didn't know anything about them; I just knew I liked them," he says. But Gard did his homework and started attending auctions on the East Coast, the center of decoy activity for collectors now, as it was for carvers a century ago. It was at an auction on Cape Cod, around 1980, that he met another decoy crazy Texan named James McCleery, a name already legendary in collecting circles.

The two day , produced jointly by of Massachusetts and deemed worth $684,500 by an enthusiastic bidder. In all, the auction brought $11 million, about double the original estimates.

A Pasadena pathologist, McCleery had stunned decoy devotees seven years before by paying $10,500 for a long billed curlew decoy made by in the 1800s. Before that sale, which offered the collection of another legendary collector, , values were in the hundreds, not thousands, of dollars. When McCleery's own collection was auctioned after his death in 1999, the infamous "doctor from Texas" again altered the decoy world.

Floaters and stick ups represent the two main decoy types. Floaters may be hollow, with separately carved heads and weighted bottoms; they were designed to float on the water and were anchored. Stick ups, which imitated shorebirds, often were carved from a single, solid piece of wood, mounted on sticks or poles, then stuck into the sand or a marshy area and arranged in realistic groupings.

The decades between 1840 and 1918 were considered the "great age of the decoy," also known as the market hunting period, during which millions of birds were slaughtered by professional hunters providing wild fowl for restaurants and other commercial concerns. Herons, cranes, swans and egrets in large numbers also were killed for their plumage, their feathers sold to adorn the hats of late Victorian era women. Some species, such as the passenger pigeon, became extinct, making their decoy effigies that much more important.

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