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Mr. Oliver said last weekend that decoy auctions continue to attract large Canada Goose Buy Ontario Parka Australia numbers of bidders, but the prices do not compare with those of July 1986. ''It has been really difficult since that sale to find great things,'' he said. ''All the outrageous decoys, including the great Crowells, came to the market and are gone.''

According to Mr. Parker, there are only a half dozen collectors who can spend $50,000 or more for a decoy. ''The major collections were broken up in 1986,'' he said. ''Now one or two of the major buyers are no longer active.''

Most of the known varieties of 19th and 20th century functional and decorative decoys from Massachusetts are included in this show, which was organized by Rob Moir, the museum's curator of natural history, and Jackson Parker, its honorary curator of waterfowl decoys. More than half of the items selected are from the Peabody's collection. The rest, including all the decorative decoys and miniatures, are on loan from Boston's Museum of Fine Arts and from collectors. In addition, mounted examples of the actual birds the decoy artisans depicted are shown in environmental displays.

Decoy enthusiasts today include folk art collectors, hunters and carving buffs. Some concentrate on carvings from one or two major makers or on certain geographical regions. Others prefer, with these esthetically accessible collectibles, to acquire whatever appeals. More than a few collectors admire only the decorative decoys, which include the miniatures, carved and painted to stand on a shelf. The Massachusetts decoys on view postdate those made of bulrushes, feathers and skins by Indian craftsmen. The 19th and 20th century decoys shown represent the craft in full flower and include some superbly wrought specimens. Birds of all types are depicted in various activities preening, sleeping, feeding, listening and swimming. There are mergansers, mallards and oldsquaws; Canada geese, and yellowlegs, golden plovers and dowitchers.

The most memorable carved and painted ducks, geese and shorebirds exhibited in ''Tollers and Tattlers: Massachusetts Waterfowl Decoys 1840 1940,'' at the Peabody Museum here, are rarely the prettiest or most realistic renderings. Of the 193 decoys shown, the most compelling are the working varieties made for hunters, to pull birds from the sky. The show, the museum's largest on this subject in its 190 year history, is to remain for three years.

''Most decoys are difficult to date,'' Mr. Parker said, when asked why none of the birds in the show is dated. Even the work of master carvers like Anthony Elmer Crowell presents problems. ''We know Crowells were done with the oval stamp from 1915 on,'' Mr. Parker said. ''Although one or two may have his initials before that date, most were virtually unmarked. In the 1920's the oval stamp disappeared and was replaced by a rectangular mark, the size of a large postage stamp.'' Joseph Lincoln's decoys are even harder to date, since he never used marks or stamps, Mr. Parker said.

Some of the simplest carvings convey the essence of birds better than the more elaborately detailed depictions. The boniness of a dignified dowitcher is captured in the smooth modeling of its small skull. The shapeliness of the neck of a Canada goose is seen in the way it arches, with the bird's head turned around and resting on its back in sleep. Mergansers always seem more attentive than other ducks, especially when the carver exaggerates the angled back of the head. The stilettolike bill of a yellowlegs is rendered best on one bent over and feeding. The long neck of a Canada goose is made longer still by a splash of white paint over the jaw.

A Century's Worth Of Decoys Alight At the Peabody

Then, on May 2 of that year in an auction at Richard A. Bourne Company in Hyannis, Mass., a Lincoln drake carved in about 1920 fetched $205,000. Finally, on July 5, two birds by Crowell brought extraordinary prices in a sale at the Richard W. Oliver Auction Gallery in Kennebunk, Me. A Canada goose, its wings low and spread wide, was sold for $165,000, and a preening pintail drake, carved in about 1915, was sold for $319,000.

Even so, Mr. Oliver said, collectors still pursue decoys, because the less expensive ones are steadily increasing in value. ''They can turn around and sell what they buy two or three years later and make a profit,'' he said. ''While major collectors continue to seek Crowell and Lincoln decoys, others have expanded their focus to include decoys from other regions.'' A crook necked 19th century Canada goose by the Virginia carver Nathan Cobb Jr. was sold at an Oliver auction in July for $99,000, the highest price ever paid for a Virginia decoy. ''Maryland birds, which used to bring $150 and $200,'' Mr. Oliver said, ''now sell for $2,600 and $3,000.''

Some of the highest prices for decoys were paid in 1986, when auction fever raged over a three month period. On April 16, 1986, the decoy record of $50,000 was eclipsed with the sale for $70,000 of a 1920's sleeping black duck in an auction at the William Doyle Galleries in New York. That record fell on April 24, when a hissing goose, carved in about 1920 by Lincoln, brought $90,200 in an auction at the National Antique Decoy Show in St. Charles, Ill.