Decoys bring genuine fortune

Nearly 700 lots were offered in the two-day auction which netted $4,158,929, over a third of which came from just six decoy ducks.

The ducks were carved by artist A E Crowell (1862-1952), of whom a lot more has been discovered recently after the publication ofThe Songless Aviary: The World of A.E. Crowell and Son, written by Brian Cullityin 1992.

"Just when you think you've seen it all, something comes along and knocks you off your feet," Cullity wrote in the auction catalogue.

The six ducks were from the collection of Harry V. Long, an introverted collector and philanthropist born in 1857. Long owned an island named Whitehead, near Massachusetts, purchased with the fruits of his success on the New York Stock Exchange.

On Whitehead, Long's interest in hunting reached its highest point, and he struck up a friendship with Crowell himself. It is probably due to this personal relationship that the ducks are particularly beautifully carved.

The first of the six ducks to be auctioned was a preening pintail (pictured). When it was announced, the auction room went very quiet. The opening bid was a substantial $275,000, but in fighting off a telephone bidder the buyer had to offer double this to $546,250.

The other pieces included a nesting Canada goose and an open-billed yellowlegs duck which rose from their opening bids of $400,000 and $100,000-661,000 and $172,000 respectively. In total all six fetched $1,817,000 in a fascinating session.

Another spectacular piece, not from the Long collection was a swan carved by John "Daddy" Holly. It was particularly finely carved, capturing the elegance of the bird. Life-size carved swans are also notable simply for their rarity.

Some very fine paintings were sold as well. The auction had a sporting art section, and the biggest seller here was a slightly wistful Frank Benson watercolour that sold for $80,500 named Canada Geese which depicted the birds with striking clarity against an overcast sky.

Away from the avian theme, a portrait of Edmund C. Tarbell's sister-in-law in An Opal: Study of Yellow and White Light by the acclaimed American Impressionist squeaked over the $100-120,000 estimate to sell for $120,750.

High end art, such as that by successful impressionists may be seen as a good investment in times of economic strife as it tends to hold its value while stocks and shares plummet.

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