Purchase Story

Summer Migration on the Cape

Decoys Unlimited, Inc., Plymouth, Massachusetts

Photos courtesy Decoys Unlimited

Part three of the annual summer decoy migration took place July 25 and 26 in Plymouth, Massachusetts, where Judy and Ted Harmon’s Decoys Unlimited, West Barnstable, Massachusetts, continued the auction of prized decoys migrating from one collection to another. Collectors know the birds, know who owns what, and appreciate the opportunity to take ownership of a few. For most, the birds are part of their DNA.

Addenda lots sold at the beginning of the sale included the top lot of the auction, a rigmate pair of Mason Premier-grade red-breasted mergansers dating from 1900-10 in original paint and fine condition, with minimal wear. The pair brought $50,400 (est. $20,000/30,000). They are believed to be the only known pair of the rare species and retain scraps of the newsprint used to ship them. New Jersey restorer Russ Allen reglued a break in the hen’s bill. The Harmons think it likely that the birds were used in Sandwich, Massachusetts, along with two tiny peeps from the Lombard Jones family, although they came from a Martha’s Vineyard collection Ted Harmon first saw 11 years ago.

Ted Harmon recalled a visit to a carver when he was a schoolboy. In retrospect, Harmon thinks it may have been Cleon Crowell. In any case, Ted began collecting at around 15 or 16 when he found six abandoned decoys in an old blind. By age 33 he had retired from the family business to take up dealing full-time, and in 1986 he and his wife, Judy, began holding auctions. In 2005 Harmon established the A. E. Crowell American Decoy Foundation, the moving force behind the relocation, reassembly, and restoration of the barn in East Harwich, Massachusetts, where Anthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) and his son Cleon Crowell (1891-1961) carved their legendary decoys. Of the elder Crowell, Harmon said, “There was really no one in the world doing what he was doing. He was decades ahead of everyone else.”

Crowell’s billhead advertised “High Class Bird and Duck Decoys of every description.” A collection of 15 life-size birds was commissioned from A.E. Crowell in November 1925 by Dr. Davenport West of New York City and Harwich Port, Massachusetts. In his letter to Crowell, Davenport indicated to Crowell that it was likely that he would order additional birds but requested that the carver get to work on the 15 “so that there will be no further delay.” Crowell priced the 15 at $100 for the group. Davenport ordered four more in July 1931: a kingfisher with a fish in its bill, a pine warbler, a sparrow, and a screech owl. Their cost was $54.

Most of the birds from the West collection were marked with the hot oval brand and/or the early High Class Decoys ink brand, and one had the Crowell rectangular brand. West seems to have given away a nuthatch from the first group of birds. Distribution of the collection fell to one of his grandchildren, and 17 of the 19 birds were offered at the Decoys Unlimited auction. The highest-priced of them was a screech owl that sold for $20,400 (with buyer’s premium).

The life-size birds were followed in the sale by a collection of 11 very early Crowell miniatures obtained by barter by Horace Bearse in exchange for his plumbing services. Another townsman, Arthur Gould, bartered with Crowell also, delivering a bucket of clams in exchange for a mini.

For more information, call (508) 362-2766 or visit (www.decoysunlimitedinc.net).

This A.E. Crowell screech owl in excellent condition is one of Crowell’s rarest folk carvings. It was made to be mounted on a wall with a screw. It is signed “A.E. Crowell” beneath the tail and sold for $20,400 (est. $9000/12,000).

This A.E. Crowell cedar waxwing in original condition is another one-of-a-kind to date. It has the oval hot brand and is signed in script by the carver. Estimated at $5500/8500, it sold for $6600.

This miniature hanging Canada goose by Crowell was described in the catalog as “without question the finest miniature carving we have seen by this master carver.” It was made for Everett Beaumont Mills of Fall River, Massachusetts, who was Crowell’s friend and founder of the Pequaw Honk Club in Westport, Massachusetts. Crowell made the club’s decoys and maintained the rigs used at the club. The bird brought $19,200 (est. $8000/12,000).

This brilliant scarlet tanager by A.E. Crowell, marked with the oval hot brand, was estimated at $6000/8000 and brought $7200.

This A.E. Crowell kingfisher in excellent original condition, with the original fish in the bird’s beak, is marked with the rectangular stamp and has Crowell’s signature. It brought $9600 (est. $7500/9500).

A.E. Crowell’s large 11" long miniature calling flying Canada goose, made for Ralph French of Westport, Massachusetts, sold for $6960 (est. $6000/9000). The half-model mount is inscribed on the back in Crowell’s hand, “To My Dear Friend / Dr. Ralph French / Elmer Crowell / Cape Cod / My old Gander / Tom.” Crowell made the bird for his good friend French, with whom he hunted.

Dated 1960, this red-breasted merganser drake by the Ward brothers tells its entire story in inscriptions on its bottom. It is marked “Made by L. T. Ward Bros.,” signed “Lemuel Ward” and “Steve Ward,” and marked “Bobby Richardson Collection” and “Capt. Ellery Clark Collection.” Estimated at $1500/2500, the drake delivered $3900.

This life-size ruffed grouse by Arnold Melbye of Bass River, Cape Cod, Massachusetts, brought $7200 against the $5000/10,000 estimate. Melbye learned his craft from Elmer and Cleon Crowell and is considered the dean of American bird carvers.

Blue jay signed in script “A.E. Crowell,” sold for $7800 (est. $5500/7500).

This bluebill hen by Nathan Rowley Horner (1882-1942) of West Creek, New Jersey, in his early high-head style, is among his best-known examples. It is hollow carved to impressive thinness and has perfect symmetry. Estimated at $6000/9000, it realized $8100.

The plump, miniature crook-necked Canada goose, circa 1910, by A.E. Crowell is among a group of 11 very early miniatures obtained by barter by plumber Horace Bearse in exchange for his services. The neck and head configuration is found only in Crowell’s earliest miniatures. It sold for $4320 (est. $4500/6500).

These red-breasted mergansers by Harry V. Shourds or Harry M. Shourds (father, son, or grandson) retain museum identification numbers and are made with tack eyes. The pair, in age-darkened paint, fetched $5400 (est. $5500/7500).

This early merganser hen made between 1910 and 1920 by Keyes Chadwick (1865-1958) of Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts, is the only hen known to have been made in his early racy style. Provenance includes the collection of author Winward Prescott. The bird brought $5040 (est. $4000/6000). The hen and its matching drake are illustrated in Martha’s Vineyard Decoys by Stanley Murphy (pp. 26, 57).


Originally published in the November 2019 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2019 Maine Antique Digest

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