In 1970, before inflation made "collectible" a household word, an antique duck decoy might have sold for $1,000. Last July a preening pintail shaped by Cape Cod's A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) from hunks of split swamp cedar and white pine, then daubed with layers of house paint, brought $319,000 at auction. Decoy prices, like a flock of wary black ducks flushed from a beaver pond, are still climbing hard and fast.
Floaters and Stick-Ups: A Personal Survey of Wildfowl Decoys by George Reiger with photographs by Kenneth Garrett (David R. Godine, $45) takes a shrewd, thoughtful and stunningly beautiful look at this phenomenon. Reiger, a tough-minded conservation editor at Field & Stream, traces the history of American decoys from a 1,200-year-old canvasback found in a Nevada cave on the long-vanished shores of ancient Lake Lahontan through the golden days of the market gunners—hunters who supplied waterfowl to restaurants from Boston to Savannah in the days of plenty—to the present. He sides sensibly with collectors who prefer functional "working" decoys over "ornamentals" carved solely for detail and higher prices. He points out that, in fact, ornamentals took less time to create because the carver used fewer coats of paint. Old masters like Crowell, Joe Lincoln and Shang Wheeler were able, in some intuitive way, to suggest the movement and vitality of live birds with a minimum of knife strokes. They were not artists, Reiger argues, but consummate craftsmen whose years of shooting over their own work—before the Migratory Bird Treaty of 1918 put an end to market hunting—gave them insights into behavior unknown to the academicians.
Reiger explains the sly psychology of today's decoy trade and tells what to look for in distinguishing antiques from forgeries. "The paint will be scuffed and there may be a scar or two," one carver tells him, "but the bill will always be perfect. Few of us can abide a broken bill." It's clear that collecting can be as treacherous a ground as the swamps where the old "stools" (which comes from the expression "stool pigeon") first saw service.
The color photographs by Kenneth Garrett of costly decoys in actual marsh and shore settings evoke the feel of the duckblind with such telling autumnal effect that the book's substantial price seems reasonable.