Fish decoys: folk art of deception

NEW YORK – Using fish decoys goes back to the caveman era when spearing fish through frozen lakes was a necessary part of food-gathering, but it has developed into a quintessentially American discipline, especially during the Great Depression.

Colorful decoys were attached to lines and dropped into ice holes to lure other fish close enough for fisherman to spear. Unlike fishing flies and lures, decoys didn’t have hooks but instead used vivid paint, shiny glass eyes and shimmery fins to attract their prey. Carvers located where lakes were prevalent – from the Great Lakes region to Minnesota and upstate New York – created elaborate, often highly realistic, decoys that folk art collectors have eagerly snapped up for decades. Among the attributes most sought-after are rarity of the species depicted, quality carving, colorful paint, size and condition.

The place of the fish decoy in folk art and in collecting circles was cemented by an exhibition, “Beneath the Ice: The Art of the Fish Decoy,” that opened in 1990 at Museum of American Folk Art in New York City and went on to eight other museums in two years.

Fish decoy, Chautauqua Lake, New York, having brass tack eyes, painted leather tail and classic carved gills and mouth, 6 7/8 inches long, hammered for $2,800 at a Conestoga Auction Co. sale in January 2014. Photo courtesy of Conestoga Auction Co. and LiveAuctioneers

That exhibition featured the collection of Steven Michaan of Pound Ridge, New York, who has collected decoys for years, has written two books on the subject and features additional content on his website, FishDecoy.com.

“The heyday of the fish decoy was the Depression. They needed the food; it was not a sport,” said Michaan. “The ones I collect mainly are from Michigan, Minnesota and New York.” Noting that fisherman-carvers used these initially as fishing tools, with techniques they learned from the native peoples of America, Michann noted that makers had to make the decoys look realistic to lure other fish. Fish decoys are “the oldest form of utilitarian folk art,” he said.

New buyers need to be careful as there are many fakes and copies on the market, which has damaged the market for serious collectors, he said.

Jon Deeter, a co-founder of decoy specialist auctioneers, Guyette & Deeter in St. Michaels, Maryland, and Chagrin Falls, Ohio, noted buyers should always consult with experts and arm themselves with knowledge, reading up on the subject and studying examples first hand. There are many contemporary decoys that have fooled many buyers, using techniques like acid-washing to make them appear old, known as Mikko-type decoys, named after one decoy maker who created works to replicate the look of older ones.

A Lake Chautauqua fish decoy, depicting a sucker, by Ed Irwin, circa 1900, sold for $10,000 in November 2017 at Guyette & Deeter Inc. Photo courtesy of Guyette & Deeter Inc and LiveAuctioneers

“In general, people that collect fish decoys collect specific regions. There are fish decoys from Wisconsin, Minnesota and the oldest fish decoys are from western New York [Lake Chautauqua area]. “They are really fun to collect,” he said, adding that there are stands made for them so collectors can display them elevated.

Among top Michigan carvers are Oscar Peterson (1887-1951) of Cadillac, who had a unique and recognizable layered painting style; and Hans Janner Sr (1917-1985) from Mount Clemens, whose works bring top dollar. Styles vary from realistic to abstract and stylized, especially among contemporary carvers. “It’s all about taste and what you like, Michaan said. “Know what you are buying and get a guarantee.”

A 9-inch-long Oscar Peterson carved and painted trout fish decoy with tin fins sold for $1,400 at Cowan’s Auctions in April 2014. Photo courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Demand remains high for good examples from the best carvers. Guyette & Deeter sold fish decoys by Peterson in April 2018, several going in the $10,000 range. “Peterson was a true folk artist,” Deeter said.

Hans Janner Sr was a master carver whose full-bodied decoys are ornate with sinuously curved fins. Guyette & Deeter sold a Janner ghost fish, measuring 12 inches long, in April 2011 for $41,400, a remarkable price. “It’s a really cool fish. Examples of his work are scarce today as he mostly made decoys only for his family and close friends,” noted Deeter.

Sporting goods manufacturers also made fish decoys. Heddon’s Dowagiac fish decoy #400 with original box sold for $2,500 in October 2015 at Morphy Auctions. Photo courtesy of Morphy Auctions and LiveAuctioneers

Each region had its own characteristics and Lake St. Clair in Michigan was another haven for fish decoy carvers, including Theodore VandenBossche (1887-1958), renowned for his metalwork, in which he mainly used found metal such as tin cans.

“Most of the fish decoys here were made from 1900 to 1950, some of them are very large,” Deeter said, noting aside from sturgeon decoys, these were some of the largest decoys made. “The large size gives them great scale for decorating. Visually they are pretty awesome.”

Whether small or large, fish decoys are fascinating hybrids of art and craft, and they’re very collectible.