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Rose Mary
By Rosemary McKittrick
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Classic Blackduck; John Blair Sr., last-quarter 19th century sold for $97,750. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Schmidt.
A shared love of duck hunting can lead to surprising results. Take John Blair Sr., a 19th century carriage maker and his “friend” the trolley painter.

At first, the two seemed almost mythical. No track record existed for either as decoy carvers or painters.

In his book “Decoys” Loy S. Harrell Jr., talks about how that changed in 1979 when John Blair III surfaced in Elkton, Md. He solved the mystery by revealing his grandfather, a Philadelphia carriage maker, as the creator of a rig of pintails just after the Civil War. When asked who painted them, he said “a trolley painter.”

With its tasty flesh and fast flight, the pintail was a popular game bird in the strong waters of the Delaware River. Blair and his friend used their carriage painting talents to create some of the finest American folk art decoys known. They’re crisply painted and smooth-bodied.

Decoys are basically carved wooden replicas of ducks and shorebirds. Blair’s “classic” hollow styles have round bottoms and the halves are pinned with dowels. They’re also weighted with a beveled lead rectangle attached with tiny nails.

The heads sit on a raised shelf and have tack eyes. Some of his birds were also carved with their necks extended to imitate swimming.

If you’re lucky, you just might stumble upon one in an old boathouse or under a dock.

The carving and painting in these decoys is extraordinary and consistent. Blair’s only real competition was Mother Nature herself.

The peak decoy-making period in the United States was in the late-19th and early-20th century. There were no restrictions then on the number of birds a market-hunter could shoot.

Decoys come in varying shapes, sizes and qualities. Most were made along the Atlantic Coast and Mississippi flyways. Some were crude silhouettes. Others, like Blair’s, were finely made. It’s an old and uniquely American craft.

A few metal and paper-mache decoys survive, but most are wood. You name it and it was carved. The most common ducks include mallards, canvasbacks, teals, bluebills, black duck and pintails. Geese and swans were also made.

Identifying decoys correctly means everything. It’s not the bird identity so much as it is the maker that’s important. Carvers rarely signed their work but you may find a name or a date stamped on one.

The condition of the paint is one of the more reliable guides to the age and value. Old decoys used by market gunners were given a fresh coat of paint every year or so. Many layers of cracked paint indicate an old decoy.

A well-preserved paint job adds a lot to desirability. Collectors rarely repaint decoys. The original paint even if it’s scratched or faded is critical to a decoy’s value. You also expect to see those scratches and nicks on an old decoy.

On July 27 and 28, Guyette and Schmidt, featured several decoys carved by John Blair, Sr. in its North American Decoys at Auction sale held in Boston, Mass. Here are some current values.


Bluewing Teal Hen; John Blair Sr., hollowed carved with tack eyes; body halves joined by small dowels; last-quarter 19th century; $51,750.

Pintail Drake; John Blair Jr., fine feather paint detail and tack eyes; first-quarter 20th century; $69,000.

Classic Blackduck; John Blair Sr., hollowed carved with tack eyes; body halves joined by small dowels; last-quarter 19th century; $97,750.

Black Bellied Plover; maker unknown; hollow; late-19th century; dovetailed head and neck attachment designed so head can be removed; $109,250.

Pintail Drake; Ivar Fernlund; Ontario; late-1st quarter 20th century; hollow carved with slightly turned head and inset hardwood tail; $126,000.

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