“Should I start in the 1800s?”
Since I was only writing an article, I explained to Robert “Bobby” Richardson that I would need him to condense it to a more modern time epoch. “You want to know why decoys are valuable? Well then, I’m only going to go back to probably the 1930s and come forward.”
He’s not kidding. The amount of information known by Cambridge native Richardson on the subject of decoys (also known as ‘birds’) is staggering, and your first reaction is that he should write a book. Well, he has, and it’s not just any book. Chesapeake Bay Decoys: The Men Who Made and Used Them, published in 1992, is still considered THE definitive guide for collectors and other enthusiasts. Even buying a used copy commands a hefty price.
Having attended the Waterfowl Festivals throughout the years, I knew decoys (ducks primarily, but also geese and swans) were used as lures to attract ducks. I had even bought a couple to display on my mantle, but I had no idea about the extent of their popularity—or price. Not that this was always the case. Richardson remembers speaking to a curator at an art show a long time ago. “She said, ‘Bobby, are you aware that this is an illegitimate art form? We’re not accepted, but when they understand that decoys are three-dimensional art, then we will be accepted and loved.’ And within the 50 years since, she was absolutely right, it’s an art form that we had missed.”
But what makes it art? According to Richardson, it goes beyond the visual. “Unlike the art on a wall, or a sculpture in a museum, it’s physical; you get to touch it.” Besides that, of course, there is the monetary aspect of their increasing in value.
“I started collecting in 1968,” said Richardson, “which makes me one of the earliest collectors. I remember talking to a guy who had an auction house and how it was unheard of to sell decoys in New York. Now, he told me, 60% of his buyers are from New York City. And that’s where the art world is.”
As Richardson explains it, necessity is what started him in the business. That and a good eye. As a hunter, he said, he would sometimes pick up a lure and think, “that’s a good-looking decoy.” He began accumulating and then selling them at a time when he needed to raise some money. But his expertise almost drove him out of the business he helped create. “I would sell them for $500 or 5,000. But after I sold it, the price would go up, and when I went to replace my inventory, I had to pay more than what I’d sold it for. So, it was a progression that I couldn’t control, because like a beautiful antique, every time it changes hands, it increases the value.”
Despite there being so many birds in the market, Richardson said there are only approximately 5% that can be considered a collectible. And this is where the 1800s come in. Back then, places such as Peterson Decoy or Mason Decoy Factory, or Animal Trap Company were carving, painting, and producing wooden decoys. By the time World War II started, some of these factories that were still in business switched to helping the war effort, manufacturing, for example, gunstocks for the army. After the war, the decoy industry changed, and few decoys were hand made. Instead, machines were churning out lighter-weight plastic decoys.
Suddenly, Richardson said, wooden decoys started to generate interest. “People would pick one up and say, ‘I love it, that’s a green ringed teal.’ Or ‘isn’t that a pretty mallard, or ‘gosh, isn’t that a nice black duck.’ And the rest is history. Everybody started collecting and wanting them like they’d want a good tea table or a good work of art for the wall.”
By the 1970s, decoys were a big business and were viewed as an important form of Americana and folk art. Richardson, who said he’s sold over 10,000 decoys in his career, would agree, recalling how he even received $42,000 for a single sale at an auction. Of course, when coming in contact with as many people as he has throughout his lifetime, Richardson has a vault full of interesting memories of people he’s met. People like Don O’Brien, Nelson Rockefeller’s family lawyer, Walter Chrysler, the founder of Chrysler, and Zalmon Simmons, who founded the Simmons mattress company, to name a few.
He remembers early in his career selling a swan decoy to entrepreneur Kathleen Mulhern owner of the renowned The Garden restaurant in Philadelphia. “She wrote me a check for $25,000, and on my way home, I nearly flipped the car over, looking at that check. I had never had $25,000 in my life.”
But not all exchanges were successful. Richardson recounts one experience at Easton High School, during the Waterfowl Festival, where he and a friend were exhibiting their birds. Henry Kissinger, former Secretary of State, showed up and asked for the price of three decoys. “He was told it would be $300,” said Richardson. “Kissinger replied, ‘So now if I write you this check, are you going to cash it?’ My friend asked ‘why the hell wouldn’t I?’ And Kissinger said, ‘because I’m Henry Kissinger, and you’ll want it as a souvenir.’ ‘I don’t care. I’m going to cash your check,’ he said. Wouldn’t you know it, Kissinger never bought the birds.”
These memories also surprisingly included many of the decoys that have gone through Richardson’s hands “When it’s something you love, you know a lot about it. I get so much fun out of the auction catalogs because I see so many old friends.” And by old friends, he means the birds.
But don’t mistake his love for the collectible as a love for a particular bird. When asked how many decoys he still owns, Richardson, who sold off his collection a few years ago, said he only kept around a dozen. “The sale is basically what I live off of now. The irony of it all is I’m not unhappy that I sold everything because they’re made of wood. And I’m made of flesh and blood, and that’s more important to me.”
So, I wondered, are the ones he kept, the birds he couldn’t bear to part with? “No, no, no, no, no,” he responded. “They’re there because they have no value. If they had any great value, they would be gone. I did this to make a living. I didn’t do it because I was rich, but I love the art form.”
Richardson is now in his early 80s. He and his wife, Nancy, still live in Cambridge, and now that he no longer collects decoy, he’s taken up a new hobby–making folk art crow and owl birds. But he’s also found contentment with creating and painting chess/checker game boards.
It wouldn’t surprise me to hear that a Bobby Richardson original would become a collectible in the future.
Val Cavalheri is a recent transplant to the Eastern Shore, having lived in Northern Virginia for the past 20 years. She’s been a writer, editor and professional photographer for various publications, including the Washington Post.