Once used solely to lure migratory birds to their doom, decoys are now luring collectors to estate sales, shops, and auctions, where those with deep pockets are willing to pay up to several hundred thousand dollars (and more!) for especially rare specimens of this American folk art.
Native Americans used makeshift decoys of feathers, sticks, and skins at least a thousand years before the arrival of Columbus. Today, many decoys are factory-made from materials both natural and synthetic, but it is the individually hand-carved wood decoy from the late 1700's to the present that rules the collectibles market.
Decoys fall into two broad categories: "floaters" - for swimmers like ducks, geese, and swans - and "stickups," which were mounted on sticks thrust into sand or mud, and used to attract standing waterfowl, like geese, or shorebirds like plovers and sandpipers.
Decoys made prior to 1918, when Federal laws began to restrict or ban unlimited sport and commercial hunting, were carved with an eye to utility. Many of these were unsigned or unmarked, though regional and individually stylistic differences help identify or categorize specimens.
After 1918, as demand by hunters waned, carvers began to make decoys for the growing decorating and collectors markets. These decoys are usually signed and are often highly stylized or detailed. Some of the more notable carvers during and after this transitional period were Elmer Crowell of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, Charles Perdew of Henry, Illinois, and Charles Clark of Chincoteague, Virginia. Pieces by these carvers often sell at auction for 6 figures.
Though condition and rarity are important factors in any collectible, wood decoys are also judged according to aesthetic qualities like color and form. "The best decoys," after all, "are enduring works of art," and like all art, should personally appeal to the collector. (See Robert Shaw's American Bird Decoys from resource section, below.)
Today, the tradition of hand-carved decoys continues, and notable contemporary artists' specimens are exhibited in museums around the country and sold in shops, online, and at auction. Prices range from the astronomical down to the highly affordable, so it's not impossible to start building a collection now. (And it's always possible that you might just get lucky at a yard sale and come across a folk art "find" for a few dollars!)
Of course, you'll want to become as familiar as possible with this collectible (knowledge is money), and the following resources should be of value:
"Collecting Antique Bird Decoys and Duck Calls: An Identification and Price Guide," by Carl F. Luckey, Russell E. Lewis
"Decoys of Maritime Canada," by Dale Guyette, Gary Guyette
"Decoys of the Mid-Atlantic Region," by Henry A. Fleckenstein
"The Great Book of Wildfowl Decoys," by Joe Engers (Editor)
Check out their Features section: articles (Tidbits), links, news, more.
Decoy Prices Take Off Again
Interesting article by Jackson Parker in Maine Antique Digest
The Havre de Grace Decoy Museum
One of the largest collections of "working and decorative Chesapeake Bay decoys". Brick-and-mortar museum offers exhibits, library, tours, events.
Midwest Decoy Collectors Association
Hosts annual show; links
The Shelburne Museum
Brick-and-mortar museum (Shelburne, Vermont) decoy collection is one of the "finest, most comprehensive in the country".
Tom Matus: Hand-Carved Duck Decoys
The DIY (Do-It-Yourself) Network shows how to carve your own decoys.
Tools of Deception: A History of American Bird Decoys
Very informative article by Robert Shaw, curator at the Shelburne (VT) Museum from 1981-1994.