An Introduction to Vintage Michigan Fish Decoys
by Gary L. Miller -© 1980-2004
First I would like to tell you a little about myself so you will know where I’m coming from. I have been collecting and researching Michigan fish decoys for over 25 years with the idea in mind to eventually publish a book, tentatively titled “Vintage Michigan Fish Decoys, A Guide to Identification and Value”. With your kind assistance and forbearance it should be ready for publication in the next year or so. Part of what follows here has been excerpted from this unpublished manuscript.
Now when I say “vintage” I mean fish decoys made before the current “collector era”. In general, the “collector era” is defined as 1978 to the present. This is I admit a bit arbitrary but without going into all the reasons for selecting this cut off date just let me say that before 1978 there were very few fish decoys being made in Michigan for the collector market. With the possible exception of in the Mt. Clemens area, most of the decoys being produced before 1978 were being made by spearmen for spearmen. When collectors came on the scene about this time, everything changed, hence the beginning of the “collector era”. Most of what I will have to say about vintage Michigan fish decoys will also apply to all the other spearing states as well.
When I was recently asked to write an introductory article to collecting vintage fish decoys for the beginning collector, I wondered what the novice collector would most want to know. So I asked Dudley Murphy to submit a list of questions a person wanting to become a decoy collector might have. What I got back was a list of 14 questions, at least 6 of which dealt with the question of fakes, forgeries, counterfeits, reproductions, replicas and repaints. I have never understood why there is so much hand wringing among collectors on this subject. It’s not as though fakes don’t exist in lure or duck decoy collecting. They do. I know it and you know it. Every field of collecting, whether it’s glass, indian relics or paintings, has it’s fakes, reproductions, etc. When prices rise to the point where it becomes profitable to fake or reproduce an item it’s going to happen. Bet on it.
I recall that a few years ago the British Museum in London mounted an exhibition called, “Fake? The Art of Deception”. It chronicled 3000 years of the forger’s art ranging from a faked Roman chariot and photographs of fairies to a forged Rembrandt painting and even a letter purported to have been written by Jesus Christ. Sir David M. Wilson, the museum’s director, was quoted as saying, “There is a horrid fascination about fakes. Although we sweep them under the carpet, we talk about them all the time because we know that we as experts are fallible. Fakes often reflect what people want to believe. A faked antique shows much more clearly than the real thing what collectors value.” Sometimes they value things that don’t exist in any appreciable quantity, so the faker has to create them. So, relax! Fakes exist and have always existed. Get used to it.
So, what can we as collectors do to protect ourselves from fakes? Short of a CSI type crime lab, which obviously would not be available to the general public at a reasonable cost, I know of no fool-proof way to detect fakes. Forget about x-rays, black lights, etc. I’ve experimented with all of them and they are just not worth the time, expense and trouble. So we are stuck with the old tried and true methods.
But there are a number of things you can do to minimize your risk. First of all, we can all be more realistic about our expectations. Fakes in large part are the result of unrealistic demands by collectors. An old adage that I just made up says, “When collectors will only accept perfection, only perfection will be offered.” If you insist that every fish decoy be mint you are setting yourself up for a fall. This is particularly problematical with handmade decoys as, unlike factory products, very few were ever created perfect in the first place. Look folks, we are talking about antiques here. They are old and should in my opinion look it. If you want everything to look new, you should stick to buying new. That’s why we have reproductions. If you want things that look good, cost little and are easy to find, buy reproductions. But don’t whine to me about it.
Secondly, acquire your decoys only from sources you know and trust. I cannot over stress this point. Know your source! Know your source! That should be your mantra, at least until you gain the experience and expertise necessary to sift out the clinkers. Cultivate these sources and learn to trust them and take their advice and be prepared to pay the going rate. If you are a novice you shouldn’t try to collect fish decoys on the cheap. A below market price is often a tip-off that something’s wrong. Ask other knowledgeable collectors whose opinions you respect to recommend reliable sources. But please don’t ask one dealer to critique another dealer’s merchandise. There is an obvious conflict of interest there. Do this and you’re sure to make enemies.
Thirdly, you need to educate yourself. Knowledge is the ultimate fake repellent. Study. Buy books and read them. Go to shows and swap meets. Talk to knowledgeable collectors. Look at, study and above all handle the real thing. It would also be advisable to examine and study known fakes as this will give you an idea of what to look for when trying to separate the genuine from the ingenuous. There is no substitute for actually holding a fish decoy in your hand and rolling it over, examining it from every angle. But be sure to respect the merchandise. Don’t try to straighten a bent fin or poke at flaking paint. Do these things and you won’t be invited back. Above all, ask first! Perhaps someone needs to set up a booth at the national where anyone wanting to, can see and handle both the real thing and the fakes.
Some tell tale signs you might want to look for when trying to sort out the real from the fake and the old from the new are:
1. Too perfect or too good to be true. The faker knows what the collector values in a fish decoy and he tries to incorporate as many of these things as possible. He’ll often put in all the bells and whistles. Lure collectors are particularly vulnerable to glass eyes. There are exceptions of course, but generally speaking real vintage fish decoys seldom have them.
2. Signed. The idea of signing a handmade fish decoy is a modern idea that generally begins with the collector era. I think I could probably count on one hand the number of genuinely old homemade fish decoys that are signed by the maker. And those that do exist are not so much the case of an artist signing his work but more the case of an owner putting his name on it for identification purposes.
3. Artificial aging. Decoys that have been artificially aged will often have an even all over pattern of wear and age but with no broken fins or tails. Sometimes they have a chemical smell.
4. Too cheap. Don’t let greed override your brain. The faker knows that many collectors can’t resist a bargain. He’ll have a good story but ignore it and concentrate on the decoy.
5. Too many of the same or similar decoys around at the same time. If you are out and about scouting for fish decoys and all of a sudden you start to see a lot of the same or similar decoys that you’ve never seen before, look out! Fakes come in bunches. Genuine rarities are, well, rarities. They just don’t show up in quantities.
Let’s put the subject of fakes to rest and get down to the basic question of how to evaluate vintage fish decoys. It’s unfortunately a fact of collecting life that money has become a significant factor in evaluating any collectible and has taken on a larger role in these considerations than it perhaps should have. So with this in mind, here are some of the objective and subjective criteria that collectors may want to consider when evaluating the desirability of a particular fish decoy:
Since we’re talking about the collecting of vintage fish decoys here, the older the better. However, you should realize that the bulk of the “old” decoys you will find in Michigan are from the 1920s through the 1940s. There are far fewer available earlier than that and very few earlier than say 1900. There are a great many more from the 1950-1960s era. Those made later than 1970 or so should be considered “modern”. (As mentioned earlier, decoys made after 1978 are not included here and are considered “collector era”.)
Dating fish decoys is a very difficult assignment. Knowing the maker is perhaps one of the best ways to determine age. An Oscar Peterson decoy, for example, would have to pre-date his death in 1951. In the case of a living maker, he can sometimes pin point the date exactly. In other instances a friend or relative of the maker can supply valuable information. But when we’re dealing with an anonymous maker where no anecdotal information is available, the task is much more daunting. Sometimes it’s just educated guessing. There are, however, some good clues to age.
The use of modern materials such as google eyes, sequins, glitter, etc., unless added at a later date, obviously suggest a more recent manufacture. The use of modern tools such as aviation shears which leave behind telltale serrations on the edges of sheet metal parts also points to a later date. On the other hand, the use of materials such as brass, copper and old tobacco tins for fins and tails, shoe buttons for eyes or pyrographic detailing usually indicate an earlier date.
Sometimes it’s possible to establish a date as the result of a happy accident. Once, while cleaning out an old estate, I discovered a decoy wrapped up in an old brown paper bag with an ice fishing license dated 1934. In the case of unpainted wooden decoys, age can sometimes be estimated by the color of the raw wood. Most of the woods commonly used for fish decoys darken with age
The overall appearance of the surfaces on a fish decoy will offer clues to age. Exposure to air, moisture, heat and light causes bright metal to darken, glossy surfaces to dull and paint to check. This patination can be tricky to interpret, however, because hard use can sometimes masquerade as age. And of course, all of this can be induced artificially.
Another clue to age might be decoy length as in the case of sizer decoys. “Sizers” are made to approximate the current minimum legal size and, of course, would change as size minimums change. A Sturgeon sizer measuring 36”, for example, would date between 1948 and 1952. Dates for decoys might also be established by dating associated objects. This can be tricky as it is necessary to first determine that the objects found together are all the same age. Decoys found in association with an unmarked matched set of five tip-ups, for example, would date between 1915 and 1935.
The question we should be asking ourselves is “How well is it carved ? How much detail does it have ?” In general, the more detail, such as carved mouths, gills, eyes, fins, scales, etc., the higher the rank. Additionally, you might want to make a subjective judgment as to it’s merit as a piece of sculpture. Form can be critically important. If you doubt this, take a good look at a fine Hans Janner, Sr.
It’s generally accepted that all other things being equal, the better the condition, the higher the monetary value and thus, for some, the more desirable. The ultimate goal being as close to original condition as possible. But one of the things that collectors should keep in mind about condition is that, for the most part, decoys were made to be used and often they were used very very hard. Signs of use, such as spear scars, teeth marks, in-use repaintings, repairs, missing fins, water damage, paint chips, broken and chipped tails, etc. are all legitimate aspects of collectible old decoys. Sometimes they were intentionally altered by the user. A spearer might break one or two fins off a decoy to unbalance it and cause it to wobble in the water simulating a wounded fish. Others might remove the dorsal fins in the belief that they could injure the mouths of attacking fish and if not speared, die later of these wounds. Some fishermen, as a matter of course, used the spear to retrieve lost decoys and also the floaters that they deployed about the bottom by sticking them with the spear. Still others tinkered with the lead to achieve just the right action in the water or perhaps applied a new paint job right there in the shanty to take advantage of that day’s hot color. Broken wooden tails were often replaced with metal tails. New varnish was sometimes applied as part of an annual maintenance ritual.
As a matter of fact, these “battle scars” can, in the view of some collectors, actually enhance the visual appeal of a particular decoy. I believe that we should consider them badges of honor. After all, what we collect is not so much the object but the historical connotations that the object conjures up in our minds and hearts. These things are a connection to our past. They connect us with the makers and not incidentally with the users. When you look at that rugged old spear scarred decoy, do you not feel just a little of the excitement of the hunt, the slashing charge of that 40 pound muskie as he jerks the decoy from your hand and you scramble desperately to get control of yourself and the spear at once as you attempt to sink those cold steel tines deep into the back of the beast. Sometimes you get the beast and sometimes the beast gets you. For me, this is what collecting old decoys is all about. If you want shiny showroom new condition in your decoys, buy new.
Collectors who demand decoys in an absolutely pristine state of preservation are at least in part responsible for the glut of fakes, reproductions, repaired, repainted and otherwise tampered with decoys that exist in the market place today. As any seasoned old pro can tell you, perfectly preserved genuine old fish decoys are scarce. My guess would be that perhaps 75% or more of old decoys that surface are damaged in some way. (The percentage for Peterson’s would probably be somewhat better. Because they were pretty to look at, many of them never saw the water but instead rode out the season on the mantle). The problem is that the dealers and pickers who gather up this stuff from the original sources are unwilling or unable to throw away 75% of their profit. So, when collector after collector refuses to accept a less than perfect decoy, what do you suppose happens? That missing fin gets replaced, that broken tail grows new wood, and while we’re at it why not jazz it up a little with some glass eyes from old plugs and add some red spots to make a dull shiner into a more desirable trout. It’s not much of a stretch from here to just go ahead and make an entirely new decoy and artificially age it. Thus completes the corruption of the marketplace. The only defense against this type of chicanery is knowledge. So, keep your eyes open and don’t be quite so demanding of perfection.
We should keep in mind that collecting vintage fish decoys originated as part of a general interest in American folk art. As such, the criteria used to judge vintage fish decoys are somewhat different than those used to judge, say, lures. In the folk art field, things like form, function, artistic quality, patina and provenance are more highly valued. Additionally more latitude is allowed for things like in-use repairs, repainting, etc. What’s most important to the folk art collector is overall appearance or “presence”. Lure collectors entering the field should try and leave their prejudices behind.
Perhaps we should examine a little more closely just how it is that genuine old working fish decoys could survive in near perfect condition. One explanation would simply be by happy accident. A decoy might simply have been put away and forgotten only to be rediscovered years later. Sometimes, as mentioned earlier, a decoy might have been considered just too beautiful to use. One of the great ironies of collecting working decoys is that many times a decoy survived in great condition because it wasn’t used, and it wasn’t used because it didn’t work. It’s not unusual that a maker might lavish a lot of time and effort and artistic capital on creating the “perfect” fish only to discover later it’s ineffectiveness as a decoy. It might be that it didn’t swim right or that it simply didn’t draw in the prey despite any artistic merit that it may have had. The maker was understandably reluctant to throw it away because of the effort expended in it’s creation. So, he put it “on the shelf”, figuratively speaking, where it happened to be rediscovered years later by collectors.
In my opinion a working decoy should work. It should at least sink and swim. In the early days of my fish decoy collecting before they had the high values that they enjoy today, I actually tested many decoys in the water. To my great surprise, many good looking fish decoys simply did not work. However, most collectors today do not consider this an important criteria for judging the value of an old collectible fish decoy. And just how many collectors do you think are willing to put a valuable decoy in the water to test it’s effectiveness and take a chance on losing it or damaging it in some way ? Generally, it’s only the fisherman who cares how well it works. And it’s often quite difficult to get many of these old time spearers to part with the most effective fish decoys in their rigs. The real “fish getters” are prized possessions having near sacred status with these guys. They are much more likely to sell or give away to collectors the decoys not being used regularly or not thought of or remembered as being effective. The whole idea of what constitutes a great fish decoy is entirely different for the fisherman than it is for the collector. (The fish might have even a third point of view).
This is one of the most important criteria for evaluating a fish decoy but also one of the most difficult to define. A number of factors such as sculptural quality, color, size, paint pattern, etc. combine to make up “eye appeal”. Often it simply boils down to gut reaction. Does it speak to you? Eye appeal, of course, is a very individual thing, one man’s silk purse being another man’s sow’s ear. Additionally, some of the most effective “fish getters” aren’t much to look at. And looks, of course, are much of the point for the collector. The better looking, the more valuable. Many decoys are purchased by decorators and folk art collectors on this point alone.
A sad but true fact is that a great deal of what exists in the fish decoy world is unidentifiable as to maker. This is because most decoy makers made very few decoys and may have made those only sporadically over a long period of time. These occasional makers were generally inconsistent in their technique. Once separated from the source and without attribution, it’s nearly impossible to identify the maker solely through empirical means. On the other hand, makers who were prolific usually had a consistent style developed through repetition. These decoys have a certain professional look about them, the look of an experienced hand. Even though it may not be currently possible to identify the maker it’s likely that the maker can be identified eventually. All other things being equal, identifiability adds value. The distinctive consistency of makers such as Howell, Peterson, Janner and others adds measurably to their value. There used to be a maker known as “Mr. X” among collectors of Illinois River duck decoys, and even though his actual name was not then known, the identifiability factor added significantly to the appeal of his decoys.
Knowing the maker of a collectible old fish decoy adds considerably to its value. And the better the name, the higher the value.
Unfortunately, learning the maker’s name can be a daunting task. With a few notable exceptions
In the absence of a signature, the maker sometimes can be identified by comparing the decoy to examples by known carvers or by tracing the chain of ownership back to the maker. In some cases, such as Oscar Peterson, for example, the form and/or paint can be as good as a signature.
This could also be called creativity or inventiveness. Original designs are usually more valuable than imitations. Copies of other carvers work should be knocked down in value. The originator of a style or school of design will normally command a higher price in the marketplace than the student. I personally have a real affinity for the unusual, the inventive, the innovative, treasuring the oddball, unique, humorous or just plain goofy decoy.
How effective is the paint ? Does it successfully mimic the species it pretends to imitate ? Is it a successful abstraction ? Does it work as a painting, as a work of art ? You may also wish to consider such things as technique, style, the amount of detail, etc. Very often the real genius is in the painting; Peterson, Bruning, etc.
Rarity is a prime factor in establishing the value of fish decoys. How available is it ? How many were made and perhaps more importantly, how many remain ? It’s supply and demand. The rarer, the more valuable. A decoy can be rare in a number of different ways, such as maker, size, species, color, paint pattern or form. Within a given artist’s work this could apply to such things as grades, models or periods.
Generally speaking, as with other things, all other factors being equal, the bigger the better. Size can also at times be a function of rarity. For instance, the largest and smallest of a maker’s work will sometimes command higher prices.
The whole subject of attributions is a very difficult one. As a researcher who has personally conducted dozens and dozens of interviews directly with makers, their spouses and offspring, I can tell you that truth is elusive. This can in some instances be the very worst source of accurate information. I don’t mean to say that these people lie (they do), but it’s mostly just a case of mis-remembering, or selective memory. Many times a maker has said to me, “Sure, I made decoys. Here they are.”, while dumping a box of decoys out on his bench. Very often this group of maybe a dozen decoys will contain a Peterson or two, a couple of Bear Creeks, maybe one or two other well known readily recognizable makers and a half dozen generics. (Very often the generics will look a lot like Peterson’s or Bear Creek plastic pike). Obviously, if you accept this maker’s statement at face value you are going to have a lot of trouble with attributions. I see this constantly in books and articles and in dealers price lists and in groups of decoys offered for sale by pickers. Just because the guy said it, doesn’t make it so ! So you see, the more you know the better able you will be to decipher the truth. There are two ways to know a thing. You can know what it is. Or you can know what it is not ! Or as Sherlock Holmes said, “The truth shall only be arrived at by painstakingly eliminating the untrue”. The point is, you’ve got to look at the decoys with a critical eye, question the maker about inconsistencies you note and then try to get corroboration from another source. Don’t take anything at face value.
Then there is the problem with bad faith. Purposeful obfuscation is endemic in the trade. Very often pickers, dealers and collectors (authors too) will intentionally mislead the public as to maker and/or provenance in order to protect their sources or to enhance value. Traders need to sell in order to generate cash flow so they can buy more. Few have the resources to sit on their stock until they have exhausted every lead. Since pieces with names and places of origin generally command higher prices, dealers are encouraged to make false attributions so they can continue to pick over an area without the competition that accurate information could bring. Oftentimes these attributions find their way into print innocently or not so innocently. Once a decoy is tagged with a name it can be very difficult to shake.
Very often decoys by disparate makers seem uncannily similar to each other. This happens because people quite simply are “copy cats” and they generally copy things that work. So it’s not unreasonable that the decoy carvers in a given area might copy their buddy’s successful decoy or the most popular store-bought decoy. This explains why so many decoys from, say, Cadillac look so similar. Peterson’s were the most popular and the most successful, so everyone copied him. And since they were widely distributed throughout Michigan, Cadillac style fish decoys turn up all over the State. The same principle applies to commonality of time, economic circumstance, fashion, lake conditions and bait preference. The lack of money during the Great Depression, for instance, may be responsible for the many “make-do” decoys attributed to this period. Dark waters might mean bright colors. The preponderance of trout in a lake might mean an abundance of Brook Trout decoys in a given area. The popularity of pyrography as a hobby might result in a lot of wood burned fish. An article in a national outdoor magazine on how to make a fish decoy may result in many nearly identical decoys being produced in widely divergent areas (See Popular Science Workshop Manual). It is perhaps for this reason that we value most highly the work of the true innovators; the Petersons, the Janners, the Trombleys, the Brunings, the Winnies, the Hurlburts, the Muringers, the Kellmans and the many other heretofore unnamed creative geniuses of the fish decoy world.
It is my sincere hope that you will find this a useful tool for getting started in the challenging field of collecting vintage Michigan fish decoys. Collectors wishing to communicate with the author or having information, photos, etc. to contribute to a book on vintage Michigan fish decoys may E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Much of the information here is excerpts of Dec 2004 & 2005 articles written by Gary Miller for the NFLCC Gazette.
Site Master’s note: What is nice about this is that Gary has privileged us at Fish Decoy Net to reproduce this article and to note that this is just an excerpt of a new book that Gary is writing, which he hopes will become as he states “It’s intended that it will become the collector’s bible for identification purposes.” I believe it will be an important book because of the in depth of his research and the way he has explained to me how he is going to present the information as well as the photos of the decoys. I wish Gary a successful launch of his new book and look forward to being first in line when he releases it.