“Just how scarce and old is that folk art fish decoy you’re looking to buy”
by John A. Gabriel
© January 2008
The 1980’s brought a whole new life to folk art fish decoys and they quickly joined the ranks with other popular collectibles & keepsakes. I myself always appreciated folk art and became quite amazed on how a basic thing like a fish decoy could be found in such an endless number of different personalities and characters.
My fish decoy collection began by searching all the local antique malls, auction houses and flea markets. Like many others, I eventually took to the internet and began to dabble with online auctions in my quest for fish decoys. And for the longest time, I was convinced this was one of the best way to buy fish decoys. But as their popularity grew, things began to change. I started finding folk art fish decoys being sold on the internet that were tangled up with misleading and confusing words to describe them.
My interest in antiques and collectibles began in the early 1970’s and in 1994, my wife and I opened an antique shop. In those thirty plus years, I became quite familiar with word games some people would use to describe an item – to make it seem older or more unusual than it really was. When one reads a decoy description and it states, ‘Rare vintage folk art fish decoy that’s a true classic’, they expect most, if not all of the wording to have some truth to it. But, when the decoy turns out to be ten years old at best and was called rare and a classic because of its red, white and blue paint, the description is misleading.
The meaning of words like vintage, antique, rare, classic and old have become a large slippery night crawler for certain people , hard for them to hold on to and no correct end to its valid meaning. William Batter died in 1957 and is one of my favorite fish decoy carvers from the past. His work is definitely vintage. But reading the descriptions of some of the decoys being sold, some sellers feel contemporary fish decoys fit right in with vintage work like his.
I appreciate the majority of sellers who list their decoys with a straightforward description, but have an aversion to sellers who like to play word games. If you have a decoy that you know was made in the early 1980’s and you call it vintage or antique in your heading, you need to add in your description the decoy was made in the 1980’s. Vintage and antique is the period of the piece and not an exact date for an item.
Oscar Peterson’s decoys are vintage and without a doubt have a style that is classic. You will occasionally see his work come up for auction yet most of us would deem his work rare. Scores of carvers have copied his style which is known today as the ‘Cadillac style’ but if a contemporary fish decoy done in this style came up for auction, it would not make it vintage, classic or rare. Painting something to look vintage is not vintage. Carving something in a classic form after someone else’s style does not make your piece classic. It only gives it a classic look. I myself carved a catfish decoy in the Cadillac style and it might be the only Cadillac style catfish out there but, it’s not a classic and certainly is not rare. You could call it out of the ordinary but only several decades from now will judge if it’s a classic or rare piece.
Fish decoys being sold with terms like primitive or old need to have helpful explanations on why it meets that criteria. Yesterdays rust on its hardware or owning such decoy since 1990 doesn’t make it old. Using rusty square cut nails to hold in the fins might make a decoy come across as primitive but only scores of time will earn it true primitiveness. Collecting folk art fish decoys is a pleasurable and rewarding pastime for me and countless others however, when someone goes to add to their collection, the last thing they need is a vendor with snake oil tactics which can only give our hobby a black eye.
You can read more about John A. Gabriel under the Fish Decoy Carvers and also John is the Fish Decoys Net January 2008 Spotlighted Carver.
I would like to take this time to thank John for writing this article as it is becoming more and more prevalent on the internet at auction sites and not just eBay where words are becoming quite misleading.
As with John’s words of wisdom – I would like to add my 2¢ worth and remind that an internet seller can look large and worthy of your trust, but it is only a image of a store front – so know who you are buying from and always question the seller for more information.
Antique, Vintage, Rare, Classic, Circa, Old all need to have a date associated with them. Vintage without a date has no meaning and is misleading.