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Duck Dynasty

Clayton Pennington | August 1st, 2013

This 1890’s black-bellied plover by A. Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, Massachusetts, appeared on the cover of American Bird Decoys by William J. Mackey Jr., published in 1965. Estimated at $125,000/175,000, it sold for $214,000 to Charleston, South Carolina, dealer Tom Reed, who calls his business American Sporting Classics. Reed bought it for a client. “It’s a rare bird,” he said, “They just don’t come to market too often.” It was cataloged as “near mint original paint,” and this was the first time it had been on the market since the 1970’s. It was once in the Carolyn Rowland collection. Jon Deeter said, “I was happy with the price. In this market, getting a bird in the six figure[s]…is not easy.”

The catalog called this cedar merganser hen “a new and important discovery,” noting that collectors were unaware of any working mergansers made in the 1930’s by the Ward brothers of Crisfield, Maryland. Broker Dick McIntyre of Seabrook, South Carolina, was the winning bidder, paying $92,000 on behalf of a client. The underbidder was on the phone. It has a slightly turned head and is stamped “L.T. Ward and Bro.” Painted on the bottom is “Female hooded merganser, Made for John H. Moore, New York.” Moore was the CEO of Sportsman, a brand of grooming essentials.

This feeding curlew by A. Elmer Crowell, sporting an oval brand, stood 16½" high and sold for $109,250 to a collector from New Jersey. Asked about the purchase, the collector replied simply, “I always wanted one.” Given to Charles Hardy by Crowell, the bird had a label that read “jack curlew.” An addendum to the catalog noted that it had touch-up paint on one toe and on part of each thigh. The estimate for the ex-Rowland collection curlew was $60,000/80,000.

The auction catalog noted that this was possibly the only known shorebird carving by A. Elmer Crowell with two birds on the same base. The curlew and the greater yellowlegs, approximately 5½" tall, sold for $13,225, well above the $5000/7000 estimate. The double mount was ex-Carolyn Rowland.

This semipalmated plover with turned head by A. Elmer Crowell, with an oval brand, sold for $25,300 to the Internet. It was estimated at $10,000/15,000, but competing absentee bids meant the ex-Rowland decoy opened at $14,000.

A. Elmer Crowell gifted this jack snipe to Charles Ashley Hardy. With an oval brand and signed “C.A. Hardy,” it sold above the $30,000/50,000 estimate for $74,750 to a phone bidder.

This upland plover by A. Elmer Crowell, with an oval brand and a label, signed by Charles Ashley Hardy, was estimated at $40,000/60,000, but a phone bidder had to pay $89,125 in order to secure it. It was a gift from Crowell to Hardy.

This 1920’s merganser hen with a graceful neck and original paint by Ed Dingman, Alexandria Bay, New York, sold to a Texas collector bidding in house with a cell phone pressed to his ear. Estimated at $10,000/14,000, it sold for $21,850. Decoys (1992) by Linda and Gene Kangas pictures a pair of mergansers by Dingman and notes that there are only six mergansers known by him.

Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter, Portsmouth, New Hampshire

Photos courtesy Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter

The two-day decoy auction conducted by Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, August 1 and 2 harks back to the early days of decoy collecting.

A true “dust jacket” black-bellied plover—not a dust jacket-style plover—by A. Elmer Crowell was the most celebrated lot. The term “dust jacket” has been applied to Crowell’s highest level of carving and his most desirable style of hunting decoy, referring to the trio of decoys that appear on the cover of William J. Mackey’s 1965 book American Bird Decoys. The black-bellied plover sold by Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter is the middle one of the three shorebirds on the book’s cover.

Part of the Carolyn Rowland collection, the plover in near original paint was estimated at $125,000/175,000 but did better than that, selling for $214,000 (includes buyer’s premium) to Charleston, South Carolina, dealer Tom Reed, who calls his business American Sporting Classics. “I bought it for a client,” Reed said. “It’s a rare bird.”

(Another of the true “dust jacket” birds, the feeding black-bellied plover shown on the left of the cover of the book, sold at Sotheby’s for $240,000 on May 19, 2005.)

The Rowland collection of decorative carvings was a plum consignment for the St. Michaels, Maryland, auction firm. Rowland, who died in 2012, graduated from Vermont’s Bennington College with a degree in art in 1937 and studied with famed photographer Ansel Adams from 1938 to 1941. She came from a collecting family that became wealthy in the lumber business; her father, Edward Clark Crossett, collected old master and European prints, and in 1951 donated a large collection to Amherst College’s Mead Art Museum.

Rowland had lifelong ties to Cape Cod. The Crossett family summered on Cape Cod, and Carolyn became a competitive sailor in her teenage years. After she married in 1946, she continued to live on the Cape as she and her husband, George, split time between homes in Boston and Osterville on Cape Cod. In the 1970’s, Rowland started collecting decorative decoys, buying first at Bourne Auctions and later at Guyette & Schmidt.

“She had almost no working decoys—her collection was mostly decorative,” said Gary Guyette. (The dust jacket is a working decoy.)

“Dale [Gary’s wife] and I met Carolyn and her husband in the late seventies at the Bourne auctions. She started buying from us in 1984. She was very involved with Bennington College, and the proceeds from her sale are going to Bennington,” Guyette said.

Rowland was a life trustee of Bennington College and a member of the second graduating class in 1937, and she joined Bennington’s board in 1995. The Crossett Library is named for her father. Her bequest to Bennington College included 107 decoys—many sold at this auction—as well as silver, jewelry, and 22 Ansel Adams photographs.

Guyette couldn’t remember what Rowland paid for the dust jacket decoy at the famed Mackey sale at Bourne in 1973, but he didn’t think it was much. “It was probably around $2500 to $3000—certainly not more than $4000,” he said.

The final accounting was still being tallied when we talked to Guyette. “The total was close to $3,022,000—if it changes it will go up a little,” he said. “There were sixty-two lots that sold for over $10,000 and two that sold for over $100,000.”

“The total was near the high estimate,” Guyette said. “This auction was a little better than last year—of course,  there was more to this sale. What’s happening is we’re getting a lot of estates, and it creates more excitement. We can offer things with reasonable estimates and few or no reserves.”

Guyette noted that this sale was the best decoy auction any auction firm has had since 2006. “One thing I noticed partway through this auction was the audience was really driving the price structure—they were pushing the prices; they were there to buy and expected to pay. They weren’t there to get a bargain,” he said.

Crowell’s decorative miniature carvings showed strength. “I was surprised by the miniatures—they did so well,” said Guyette, referring to Rowland’s collection. “There are a lot of them—many with the rectangular stamp, which is later—but they consistently went over the high estimate.” All but one of the miniatures were ex-Rowland. The best seller was a double-mount carving with a curlew and a greater yellowlegs. Standing 5½" high, it sold for $13,225, topping the $5000/7000 estimate. The following lot, a miniature jack curlew by Crowell, brought $7762.50 (est. $3500/4500). Other miniatures included a godwit that sold for $4600; an upland plover, $3795; Eskimo curlew, $7475; ruddy turnstone, $3737.50; jack curlew, $4600; and a sanderling for $3795.

Auction firm partner Jon Deeter commented, “The strength of the Crowell minis was surprising.” Deeter continued, “It was challenging…that was a lot of Crowell decoratives to bring to the market at once. We worked hard putting together the Rowland catalog, and that stimulated additional interest. Back in December, I was concerned about the amount of Crowell decoratives we were going to be selling this summer. I thought ‘How are we going to pull this off,’ but through good marketing and hard work, it happened.”

The Rowland catalog Deeter was referring to was a 56-page glossy full-color catalog of the Rowland collection, sans detailed auction descriptions and estimates, which were included in the main catalog. The auction house called it “a photographic reference.”

Several of the Crowells sold were gifts by the carver to Charles Ashley Hardy. According to Guyette, “Hardy had a hunting club [Three Bears Club], and Crowell guided and carved decoys for him.” Hardy, who graduated from Harvard in 1897 and MIT in 1904, worked in the mining industry. He wrote in a Harvard Report on the class of 1897 that he traveled “through Colorado, Arizona, and New Mexico, visited Cripple Creek, Dawson City, and the Yukon region.” He often hunted on the trips, and contributed to Outing, Life, and Shooting and Fishing.

When he was on the Cape, “Hardy thought it would be great to have Crowell make decorative carvings to market—to sell to the tourists and people with summer homes. He set him up to have a shop. Years later Crowell made several carvings that were considered his very best shorebird decoratives and gave them to him.”

A feeding curlew by Crowell, a gift to Hardy, sold for $109,250 to a collector. A jack snipe, ex-Hardy, signed on the bottom, sold for $74,750 to a phone bidder, and an upland plover brought $89,125 from another phone bidder. All three had an oval Crowell brand, were signed “C.A. Hardy,” and were from the Rowland collection. Guyette said the bases of the Crowell carvings are among the best ever made by the artist.

We attended the auction only on the first day. The sale was called by Fairfield, Maine, auctioneer James Julia and recently retired James D. Julia auctions staffer Dudley Browne. The pair was high-energy throughout and kept the bids moving.

The auction wasn’t the only draw to the Sheraton in Portsmouth. More than 23 dealers, including RJG Antiques, Loy Harrell, and Gene and Linda Kangas, offered decoys, reference books, and related objects in the hotel. Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter treat clients right. On the eve of the sale, they offered complimentary cocktails and hors d’ouevres during the 6-8 p.m. preview. During each day, a substantial New England lunch was set up with hearty sandwiches, chowder, and blueberry cobbler, all provided gratis to auction attendees. After the first day of the sale, a harbor cruise was offered—tickets were limited but free. Deeter spoke of the camaraderie of decoy collectors. “It’s a great social group of people who like each other…it’s part of what makes it so much fun,” he said.

For more information, contact Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter at (410) 745-0485 or via the Web site (

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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