Vintage decoys surface at collector carving show

For 36 years Ron Koenig hunted ducks on the rivers and marshes in Jefferson County, WI. When Koenig quit duck hunting in 1989, he had no idea what to do with his collection of wood and cork decoys, so he retired them to his garage attic to collect dust and cob webs for the next 16 years.

Koenig had been hunting with decoys that his father gave him. Some of those were decoys that his grandpa used. It wasn’t until 2005 when a friend asked Koenig if he still owned hunting decoys that he realized what he had. His friend was a local decoy collector. He told Koenig that some of his old decoys may be worth a little money.

One decoy of particular interest was a wooden drake Canvasback, carved from native pine by Robert A. Elliston. According to a 1963 article written by Joseph B. French, Elliston was born in 1849 and moved to Lake Senachwine on the Illinois River in 1889. He set up shop that year and began making decoys. His wife, Catherine, was in charge of painting. French says Elliston was the “grand-daddy” of the Illinois decoy makers. Robert Elliston died unexpectedly in 1915.

The Illinois River is on the Mississippi Flyway and was a major stopping point for migrating ducks. From about 1880 to 1910, there were many duck hunting clubs in the area that purchased Elliston’s decoys. In 1909, Elliston’s decoys sold for $12 per dozen.

According to sporting collectible author Donna Tonelli, some of the best examples of Elliston’s work are found around the Hori- con marsh region of Wisconsin. That area was hunted by several successful Chicago businessmen during the 1890’s.

In 2007, Koenig took his Elliston decoy to the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectible Show in St. Charles, Illinois. The decoy was looked at by the Guyette & Deeter decoy auction firm. Koenig learned that the decoy he’d been hunting with for 36 years, in mud, rain and snow, was indeed valuable.

The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association sponsors the St. Charles show. Jeff Seregny, board member of the association said the annual event is a good place to have a decoy appraised and a popular place to browse, buy or sell decoys and other sporting collectibles. More than 300 dealers attend the show each year.

This year’s show was held in April and featured hundreds of tables of duck decoys, duck calls, fishing lures, fish decoys and more. In addition to dealers selling collectibles at the event, Guyette & Deeter held a two-day public auction.

Decoys came from all over the United States to be auctioned. In most years there usually are some really outstanding, extremely rare finds that send prices through the roof. This year was no exception. A Monhegan Island style breast preening Scoter by Gus Wilson was auctioned for $69,000. A Goldeneye drake by the Ward Brothers sold for $80,500. And a duck call, by James Beckhart, was bid up to $13,225.

Most old decoys sold at the show don’t sell at these high prices. “It’s all about rarity and condition,” Seregny explained. “People collect at every level. I’ve seen some great collectibles at $50, $100 or $200 dollars,” he said. “They may not have original paint or may have been used a little harder, but they’re still great pieces of folk art that you can appreciate as much as one that is $50,000 or higher.”

Old faded hunting decoys dented and scraped from birdshot line the tables in St. Charles as do new carvings that have never seen water. One contemporary carver at the show who was selling new, decorative decoys in the $200-dollar range was Bob Swann of Edgerton, WI.

Swann has been carving decoys for 35 years. He was raised in Chicago and worked as an aerospace engineer in Rockford before retiring in 1998. He moved to a cottage on Wisconsin’s Lake Koshkonong in 1975. Lake Koshkonong is also on the Mississippi Flyway and in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s was one of the most well-known lakes in the United States to hunt the popular Canvasback duck. The basement of the lake cottage is where Swann concentrates on what he calls his “real serious hobby.”

The body of most of Swann’s decoys are made of cork, the head and tail are usually basswood. For the keel he uses walnut. Swann is a self-taught carver. He uses his own patterns and builds top quality decoys with mostly hand tools and sand paper.

Award-winning Swann has carved 20 waterfowl species in his lifetime and has hand painted 1,800 decoys. He is considered a master at what he does. Over the years he has taught others his craft. In 2009, he was one of 12 carvers selected by the National Endowment for the Arts, through a $20,000 grant awarded to the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, of Salisbury Maryland, to teach his style of cork decoy making to other students.

Swann has been selling his art at the St. Charles decoy show for over 20 years. As he gets older he is slowing down and doesn’t carve as many decoys as he used to, but he still enjoys the hobby. Swann said the 2008-2009 recession limited buyers of collectibles, but “interest has been rising over the past few years.”

Expect to see Swann in St. Charles again next year. “I’m going back,” he said. “The show is a lot of fun.”

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