NEW YORK – So often greatness is born of humble beginnings, and such was certainly true of the Ward Brothers, Lemuel (1897-1984) and Steven (1895-1976), wooden decoy carvers who, over a period of decades, almost singlehandedly transformed what had been a utilitarian exercise – making handmade hunting decoys for hunters – into an art form. Their folk art masterpieces today have a place in many collections and museums. There’s even a museum named after the siblings.
But the Wards had a hardscrabble upbringing in Crisfield, Maryland, on the Chesapeake Bay, where neither one advanced past elementary school or learned to drive. They rode their bikes everywhere, even into their 70s, when both had earned widespread acclaim as the “Wildfowl Counterfeiters in Wood”– a moniker they gave themselves. Early on they were barbers by trade, and when business was slow they produced innovative decoys, just for fun.
Both vocation and avocation were in the genes. Their father, Travis Ward, was also a barber and decoy carver, producing flat-bottomed, oversized birds with exaggerated head shapes, wide hips and narrow chests. These were atypical for the area, where most decoys had shorter necks and soft, rounded bottoms, and normally straightforward-looking poses. Little attention was paid to decorative detail; they were usually one color, and any feathers were scratched in, using a nail.
The Ward Brothers would change all that. By the mid-1920s, Steve, the saw and hatchet man, and Lem, the painter and perfectionist, were making flat-bottomed hunting stools, with sprightly heads, upswept bills and realistic eyes. In the early ’30s, they were charging $1.25 for a shooting stool (and $1.25 for a haircut). Up to then, their total output was around 500 decoys (mostly canvasbacks, pintails, redheads and geese), with $2.50 generated per day from overtime work.
Times were actually good for the Wards during the Depression, since many hunters were out, not for sport, but looking for that night’s meal. By the 1940s they were making some real money and elevated their profile by winning Best in Show at the New York Decoy Show. Their fortunes soured in the ’50s when hunters began turning to cheaper, mass-produced birds, even ones made of plastic. The brothers weren’t so easily selling their handmade works of art for $20 apiece.
It was during this period that Steve began carving miniatures. Lem wasn’t crazy about them, but he dutifully hand-painted everything Steve placed in front of him. Lem also began experimenting with decorative bird carving. By 1957 they’d stopped making working decoys altogether, in favor of something more artful. Over their long careers, the Ward Brothers made an estimated 20,000 birds, out of nearly every type of wood imaginable. Today, they’re all highly collectible.
How collectible? Consider this: At this year’s Southeastern Wildlife Expo, held Feb. 15-16 in Charleston, S.C., a pair of Ward Brothers Bishops Head wigeons sold for a staggering $228,000 through Copley Fine Art Auctions, based in Boston. And in November 2016, a humpback-style pintail hen (below) made by the Ward Brothers in the early 1920s soared to $201,250 in an auction conducted by Guyette & Deeter Inc. at the Easton Waterfowl Festival in Easton, Md.
“From a marketing standpoint, the Ward Brothers are nearly perfect,” said Colin McNair of Copley Fine Art Auctions. “They provide something for nearly everyone who admires waterfowl. Their large portfolio features a high-quality standard, numerous distinct styles and a broad spectrum of species, from an early humpback beavertail fat-jaw goldeneye, to the refined “pinch-breast” pintails, to the classic 1936 model canvasbacks to a decorative ruffled grouse.”
McNair continued, “The demand for Ward Brothers decoys, relative to other markets, is solid. This is driven in part, by their broad appeal that reaches to all corners of the continent. While many carvers see their greatest strength in their home region, the brothers, along with A. Elmer Crowell (Massachusetts, 1862-1952) are truly loved far beyond their home waters. The next five to 10 years will see continued strength for top-tier examples, with mixed results in the middle.”
Jon Deeter of Guyette & Deeter Inc., based in St. Michaels, Md., said, “Because of many years of demand, combined with their talent and ever-changing style, the Ward Brothers almost by themselves created a market for what is now a category known as collectible decoys. Collectors can focus on working decoys and decorative carvings, as there is plenty of supply in both areas. Because the Wards were prolific, there are almost always decoys to be considered for purchase.”
Deeter added, “This is a great time to consider collecting Ward decoys. There are some very large collections coming to market. In fact, some decoys were purchased directly from the Wards. Of all the collecting categories, decoys have rebounded as well or better than any category we have seen. The support from sporting collectibles social media, activity and the number of regional shows, plus a growing demand from young collectors, are all factors.”
Robyn Czar of Leland Little Auctions in Hillsborough, N.C., observes that the Ward Brothers “had a deep understanding and consciousness that no two ducks were the same. Their carvings and unique ‘strippling’ painting style, as well as the lifelike detail work thereof, reflected their intimate awareness and respect for each individual bird. Their vision and artistry pioneered the transition of the decoy as a working tool into an expressive work of art. They were true masters.”
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art, located in Salisbury, Md., features the world’s largest and finest public collection of decorative and antique decoys. It was named in honor of the two men “whose vision and artistry in carving decoys pioneered the transition of the decoy from a working tool to an expressive wildfowl sculpture.” The museum “showcases the contributions of artists who have carved birds both as tools for the hunt and as objects of artistic enjoyment.”
To learn more about the museum, visit www.WardMuseum.org.