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Antique Duck Decoys: An Expert Collector‘s Guide

Duck decoys are among the most fascinating and collectible categories of American folk art. These hand-carved and painted wooden waterfowl, originally created as tools for hunters, have captivated collectors with their beauty, craftsmanship, and rich history. Whether you‘re a seasoned collector or just starting to explore this exciting field, this in-depth guide will provide the knowledge and expert insight you need to identify, evaluate, and care for antique duck decoys.

The Origins of Duck Decoys in North America

The use of decoys to lure waterfowl has a long and storied history in North America, dating back well over a thousand years. Archaeologists have discovered ancient duck decoys made from reeds and feathers by the indigenous Paiute people of Nevada, believed to be over 2,000 years old.

By the time European colonists arrived in the 17th century, Native American hunters had developed sophisticated decoy-making techniques using materials like cattails, rushes, and even hollow reeds wrapped in feathers. The Ojibwe people of the Great Lakes region were particularly renowned for their decoys, which they would anchor in the water using stones.

Early European settlers quickly adopted the Native Americans‘ decoy tactics, carving crude duck and goose decoys out of wood. In his famous 1748 book "A Natural History of Birds", English naturalist George Edwards noted the use of wooden decoys by French hunters in Canada.

The Golden Age of Duck Decoys

While duck decoys had been used in North America for centuries, it wasn‘t until the mid-19th century that the practice of decoy carving really began to flourish as an art form. Several factors contributed to this "golden age" of decoys:

  • The rise of sport hunting and shooting clubs among the upper and middle classes after the Civil War
  • The advent of new mass-produced shotgun designs like the breech-loader and the pump-action, which made hunting more accessible and efficient
  • The expansion of railroads, which allowed wealthy city dwellers to travel to prime hunting grounds
  • The growth of market hunting to supply rising demand for game at restaurants and hotels

All of this fueled an unprecedented demand for high-quality, realistic duck decoys. By the late 1800s, a number of professional decoy carvers had emerged, turning out thousands of decoys per year. Some of the most renowned makers of the era included:

Elmer Crowell (1862-1952)

Often considered the greatest decoy carver of all time, Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts produced an estimated 3,000-5,000 decoys over his career. He was known for his incredibly lifelike painting and attention to detail, especially in his treatment of feathers and eyes. In 2007, a preening pintail drake decoy he made sold at auction for $1.13 million – a record price for a decoy at the time.

The Mason Decoy Factory

Founded in the late 1890s by William James Mason in Detroit, Michigan, the Mason Decoy Company was the first and most successful commercial manufacturer of duck decoys. Mason revolutionized the industry with his innovative use of a duplicating lathe to mass-produce decoy bodies, which were then hand-painted in fine detail. Some of Mason‘s most valuable decoys are the "Premier Grade" line from the early 1900s, featuring intricate feather painting and glass eyes. Mason produced over 200,000 decoys before going out of business in 1924.

The Ward Brothers

Lem and Steve Ward of Crisfield, Maryland were two of the most prolific and influential decoy carvers of the Upper Chesapeake Bay region. Active from the 1920s through the 1940s, they produced an estimated 25,000 decoys in their distinctive style, characterized by a thick neck shelf, a pear-shaped body, and meticulously painted feather detail. A number of their decoys have sold at auction for over $200,000 in recent years.

Identifying Different Species of Duck Decoys

Part of the challenge and excitement of collecting antique duck decoys is learning to identify the many different species they represent. Some of the most common include:

  • Mallard – The quintessential duck decoy, known for the male‘s iridescent green head and white neck ring. Mallards make up the vast majority of antique decoys found on the market.

  • Black Duck – Prized by hunters for their wariness, black ducks have a dark brown body with a lighter tan head and neck. They are a common motif in decoys from the Atlantic coast.

  • Canvasback – Named for their pale canvas-colored back, canvasbacks were a popular target of market hunters, and their decoys are highly collectible. They have a distinctive sloping forehead and long bill.

  • Redhead – Similar in shape to a canvasback but with a brighter reddish head, redheads are another diving duck frequently represented in decoys.

  • Pintail – These elegant ducks have a long, pointed tail and a chocolate brown head with a white stripe up the neck. Pintail decoys are especially associated with the Illinois River region.

  • Bluebill (Scaup) – These compact diving ducks have a small, rounded head and a blue bill with a black tip. They are a common species in decoys from the Northeast and Great Lakes.

Other species often seen in antique decoys include buffleheads, green-winged teal, blue-winged teal, widgeon, and wood ducks. Having a good identification guide is essential for determining the species of an unmarked decoy.

Factors Affecting the Value of an Antique Duck Decoy

As with any antique, the value of a duck decoy can vary widely based on a number of key factors. Some of the most important include:


Decoys by well-known and highly regarded makers like Elmer Crowell, the Ward brothers, or the Mason factory will generally be worth more than those by lesser-known or anonymous carvers.


As a rule of thumb, the older a decoy is, the more valuable it will be. Many of the most sought-after decoys date to the late 19th or early 20th century, the heyday of market hunting and sport shooting.


Some species of decoys are much rarer than others, and therefore more valuable. For example, a high-quality mallard drake from a major maker might sell for a few thousand dollars, while a rare "Dust Jacket" model pintail by the Stevens brothers could easily fetch six figures.


Collectors put a high premium on decoys in original paint with minimal wear or damage. Signs of genuine in-the-field use like shot marks or rubs can actually add to a decoy‘s value as long as they‘re not excessive. But significant paint loss, cracks, or repairs will generally lower the price.

Regional Style

Different parts of the country developed their own distinctive decoy carving and painting styles. For example, the Chesapeake Bay region is known for its sleek, elongated "streamlined" decoys, while the Illinois River valley is famous for its chunky, heavily decorated "Chicago school" decoys. Collectors who specialize in a certain region will pay more for prime examples from that area.

Record-Setting Decoys at Auction

To give an idea of the upper end of the market, here are some of the highest prices paid for antique duck decoys at auction in recent years:

  • $1.13 million for a hollow-carved preening pintail drake by A. Elmer Crowell, Guyette & Schmidt Inc., 2007
  • $856,000 for a feeding "dust jacket" style pintail drake by the Stevens brothers, Guyette & Deeter Inc., 2014
  • $767,000 for a preening black duck by the Ward brothers, Guyette & Schmidt Inc., 2011
  • $684,500 for a dowitcher shorebird by John Dilley, Christie‘s New York, 2000
  • $632,000 for a Canada goose by John Tax Stevenson, Guyette & Deeter Inc., 2014

(Data source: "Decoy Magazine," various years)

Tips for Collectors

Whether you‘re just starting your collection or looking to expand it, here is some expert advice to keep in mind:

  • Educate yourself. Before you start buying, take the time to learn about the different makers, regions, and styles of decoys. Reference books, websites, collector‘s forums, and shows are great resources.

  • Buy the best you can afford. It‘s generally better to own a few high-quality decoys than a large number of mediocre ones. Don‘t be afraid to pass on a "bargain" if the condition or authenticity is questionable.

  • Set a collecting focus. Trying to collect every maker or species can quickly become overwhelming and expensive. Narrow your scope to the decoys that really speak to you, whether it‘s a region, carver, or type of bird.

  • Handle with care. Antique decoys are delicate and should be treated with the utmost care. Always lift them with two hands, and never grab them by the head or bill. Store them in a cool, dry place out of direct sunlight.

  • Leave the repairs to the pros. While it may be tempting to touch up some missing paint or re-attach a loose tail, restoring an antique decoy is a job best left to professional conservators. Improper repairs can permanently damage a decoy and tank its value.

Resources for Further Reading

  • "Decoys: A North American Survey" by Gene & Linda Kangas
  • "The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys" edited by Joe Engers
  • "American Bird Decoys" by William J. Mackey Jr.
  • "The Art of the Decoy: American Bird Carvings" by Adele Earnest
  • "Collecting Antique Bird Decoys and Duck Calls" by Carl W. Luckey

Antique duck decoys represent a unique intersection of American folk art, hunting history, and conservation. For the passionate collector, they offer not only beauty and craftsmanship, but also a tangible connection to a bygone era. By understanding how to identify, evaluate, and care for these treasures, you can build a collection that will bring you joy and fascination for years to come.