Five For Friday: Collecting Decoys With The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association

Rebekah Kaufman
Published on
Slot-necked goose. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Slot-necked goose. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

Waterfowl decoys are a rich and broad category at the intersection of art, sport, history, and craftsmanship. Premier examples can trade hands at five, six, and even seven figures. Auction Daily spoke with Jeff Seregny, Chair of Communications for The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association, to learn more about this specialty and its passionate collector community. The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association is headquartered in Batavia, Illinois, and is the largest decoy collecting and sporting collectibles organization in the world. Here’s what he had to say.

Auction Daily:

Tell us about The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association. 

Jeff Seregny:

The MDCA is the largest decoy collecting/sporting collectibles organization anywhere. What started 55 years ago as a small gathering of like-minded decoy enthusiasts from the Midwest, has grown into an international association of nearly 800 members from 46 states in the U.S. and five Canadian provinces. While waterfowl decoys are at our core, our members collect a broad range of sporting items, including fish spearing decoys, wildfowl calls, sporting art, shotshell boxes, creels, powder tins, and more.  Our membership is a veritable “who’s who”  in the decoy collecting world – authors of collecting reference books, decoy restorers, collecting magazine publishers, dealers, historians, and, of course, enthusiastic collectors.

Decoy display at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Decoy display at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

Auction Daily:

Tell us about the type and range of items included under the decoy collecting umbrella. What types of decoys are “hot” in terms of collectors today?

Jeff Seregny:

The style, construction, and species of waterfowl decoys vary greatly across the major duck migratory flyways (Pacific, Mississippi, Central, and Atlantic) and within each flyway, depending upon where and how they were hunted over. Decoys used on larger, open bodies of water required heavier, solid bodies with stabilizing weighted keels to keep them upright against waves and wind. Hunting in calmer, more protected shallow marsh areas allowed for lighter, easy-to-transport, hollow carved decoys. Paint patterns varied greatly across regions by individual carvers’ interpretations of the species.

What’s “hot” is really a matter of individual preference. Collectors tend to focus on decoys with attributes that appeal to them personally. This could be a particular waterfowl species, maker, or a specific region. For example, some primarily collect decoys made by the Mason Decoy Factory in Detroit (1896 – 1924).  Others may collect Michigan or Illinois River decoys. Still others might focus on teal decoys or shorebirds. 

Auction Daily:

What makes a decoy interesting and/or “valuable” from the collector’s perspective? What are some record prices for decoys, and what about those examples made them so desirable? 

Jeff Seregny:

Decoy values are dictated by a number of factors. These include:

* Condition: Original paint and no/little restoration command the highest prices. For example, an unused preening Pintail decoy made ca. 1915 by Elmer Crowell of East Harwich, MA, sold privately for $1.13 million. 

* Maker: While the makers of many decoys will remain unknown, being able to identify the maker generally adds value. 

* Rarity: Typical of most collecting categories, the number of known examples usually dictates value. This could be about the species, or about the carver himself, some of whom made a small number of decoys for their personal use. For example, an extremely rare Red Breasted Merganser in original paint made by Lothrop Holmes (Mass.) in the late 1800’s sold for $856,000 at auction.

* Aesthetic Appeal: Pure sculptural form/appeal can trump many of the other determinants of value. For example, a beautiful slot-necked (with removable head) Canada Goose by an unknown maker recently sold for $632,000 at auction.

While the above examples are within the reach of only a select few, it’s important to note that collectors can find value at every level.

Detail of slot-necked goose. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Detail of slot-necked goose. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

Auction Daily:

What is considered the “holy grail” for vintage decoys?  

Jeff Seregny:

The “holy grail” really varies from collector to collector. For some, it might be a wood duck made by Tom Chambers of Wallaceburg, Ontario, one of only two in original paint known to exist. For others, it might be the Mason factory Premier model wood duck, the only one known in original paint. And still, for others, it might be an Elmer Crowell “Dust Jacket” Plover shorebird (featured on the cover of William Mackey’s seminal book on decoys). Again, it all depends on what one collects.

Elmer Crowell “Dust Jacket” Plover shorebird. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Elmer Crowell “Dust Jacket” Plover shorebird. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

Auction Daily:

And finally, please tell us about your annual convention, the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show

Jeff Seregny:

Our annual 5-day event attracts nearly 1,000 collectors from all over North America. It includes room-to-room trading, where attendees buy and sell decoys and other sporting collectibles in a fun atmosphere geared toward networking and knowledge sharing. This is followed by a two-day decoy auction and then concludes with a two-day exhibit hall show. We estimate that over 30,000 items are offered for sale during the week.

Room-to-room trading at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Room-to-room trading at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

An important part of our mission is to ensure that the history and knowledge of these artifacts are preserved. To that end, the event includes seminars on subjects ranging from basic collecting to specific makers’ works.  In addition, we offer displays featuring a variety of sporting collectible areas, allowing attendees to experience quality items from private collections across the country.

Exhibit hall at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.
Exhibit hall at the North American Vintage Decoy and Sporting Collectibles Show. Photo courtesy of The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

For more information on The Midwest Decoy Collectors Association, visit their website or contact Jeff Seregny directly at 586-530-6586.