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Known as the Rockefeller wood duck pair, these exhibition-grade Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler duck decoys achieved $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Charles ‘Shang’ Wheeler, Connecticut’s master of duck decoys

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Known as the Rockefeller wood duck pair, these exhibition-grade Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler duck decoys achieved $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Known as the Rockefeller wood duck pair, these exhibition-grade Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler duck decoys achieved $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

NEW YORK — Probably the most famous decoy carver to come out of Connecticut was Charles Edward ‘Shang’ Wheeler (1872-1949). He didn’t just carve decoys; he also worked for a time as hunting guide, a sailor, and even a politician. He also collected decoys from other makers and helped stage exhibitions of decoy ducks and wild birds together with renowned decoy collector and author Joel Barber.

Hailing from Stratford, Connecticut, Wheeler worked in the Connecticut tradition of making hollow-bodied decoys for use on the Long Island Sound, but he did not limit himself to one style. His best decoys were often created for competitions, and in 1923, he made his grand debut at a decoy show in Long Island, New York, taking home first prize. That show included a competition carving event to encourage hunters to use decoys in shooting. Shows like this helped Wheeler’s reputation spread far beyond his native Connecticut, and his decoys quickly became staples in hunters’ decoy rigs up and down the East Coast. Today, his decoys are prized as folk art, displayed on a shelf or in a glass case, never to touch water again.

A circa-1940 pair of wood ducks by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler earned $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A circa-1940 drake and hen pair of wood duck decoys by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler earned $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Wheeler’s unusual nickname apparently dates back to his days in a military academy, when he was a pencil-thin, 6-foot-tall teenager. According to some online sources, the nickname was said to have combined two words: “chang”, after the moniker of a tall circus sideshow performer, and “langshan”, for the tall breed of German chickens.

“Wheeler is best known for his variety of decoys and shorebirds all made in a ‘gunning style’ — much of what he made was meant to be placed on the mantle or entered into decoy carving competitions,” said Jon Deeter, partner of Guyette & Deeter Inc. in St. Michaels, Maryland. “He did make gunning decoys, and some were used, but he was a true artist who liked to carve, paint, and display his works. Some are hollow and some are solid, but all are in the traditional Connecticut School style.”

Arguably, Wheeler was at his finest with his birds that appear as if they are sleeping or totally unaware of the presence of a hunter in a nearby blind. Wheeler was an avid observer, studying the birds that frequented local ponds and creeks to see how they carried themselves, and, in particular, how they positioned their heads. His decoys are highly realistic and expertly mimic the graceful lines of his subjects, which range from ducks to sailfish to sandhill cranes.

Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler’s circa-1940 resting mallard drake shows a relaxed pose that buyers find desirable. This decoy realized $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler’s circa-1940 resting mallard drake shows a relaxed pose that buyers find desirable. This decoy realized $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium in August 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

A circa-1940 resting mallard drake — a rare form featuring a sleeping drake, or male duck, instead of a sleeping hen, or female duck —  shows a relaxed pose that buyers find appealing. The drake, which brought $120,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Guyette & Deeter, Inc. in August 2021, had its head tilted to the side and its bill tucked into a nesting wing.

Wheeler’s forte was his wood ducks, and his best examples have attracted the interest of decoy historians as well as sophisticated collectors, the latter of which included noted collectors such as Peggy and David Rockefeller. A pair of wood ducks from Wheeler’s personal collection was handpicked to join the Rockefellers’ collection. Much later, the circa-1935 duck decoy duo was auctioned in March 2022 for $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium at Copley Fine Art Auctions. A photograph of Wheeler’s display at the 1948 National Decoy Makers Contest and Exhibition at Grand Central Palace in New York City shows this same pair, which is noted for having relaxed crests and turned heads, as well as the hen having her turned head tucked into her breast.

Another angle on Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler’s Rockefeller wood duck decoy pair, which achieved $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
Another angle on Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler’s Rockefeller wood duck decoy pair, which achieved $180,000 plus the buyer’s premium in March 2022. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

“With most decoy makers, there tends to be a magic period that collectors gravitate towards. For me, the birds that Shang Wheeler (1872-1942) created between 1923 and 1935 really resonate,” said Steve O’Brien Jr., owner and decoy specialist at Copley Fine Art Auctions in Hingham, Massachusetts. The Rockefeller ducks represent the high water mark for Wheeler birds, he added. “With the maker’s best carving, bright palette, and provenance, there is no finer Wheeler pair that I know of. Kory Rogers, the John and Francie Downing senior curator of American art at the Shelburne Museum, may disagree, as the museum has a terrific mallard pair that was owned by decoy legend Joel Barber.”

A different view of a circa-1940 pair of wood ducks by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler that earned $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A different view of a circa-1940 pair of wood ducks by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler that earned $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

Also featuring Wheeler’s famed attention to detail and realistic head positioning was a circa-1940 pair of wood ducks that swam away with $47,500 plus the buyer’s premium in July 2021 at Copley Fine Art Auctions. Composed of a preening drake and a turned-head hen, the pair had scrupulously detailed carving on the bills, wing tips, and the male’s ‘feather’ crest. This pair was featured in Henry Chitwood’s book on Connecticut decoys, which cited it among the most lavish of Wheeler’s decorative carvings.

The drake, in particular, ticks all the boxes for elite Wheeler collectors. “The head is artfully and accurately turned around from the right side of the breast and is topped with a pronounced crest. The accurately presented bill is heavily incised and shoots across the bird’s back, touching down between the raised wings,” according to Copley’s catalog description for the pair. Proportions overall and the sophisticated comb painting Wheeler is well known for are also worth recognizing in this pair of birds.

This early preening black duck decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler, dating to circa 1910, sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

This early preening black duck decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler, dating to circa 1910, sold for $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

While it was not until 1923 that Wheeler made a splashy showing on the competition-carving circuit, he had been carving decoys for more than a decade at that point. Decoys such as a circa-1910 preening black duck decoy catch him in the process of honing his craft. That decoy achieved a strong price of $9,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Copley Fine Art Auctions, and featured fine carving and paint detail.

Collectors eagerly snap up works by Wheeler that don’t often appear at auction, such as a Surf Scoter decoy that secured $21,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021 at Copley Fine Art Auctions. Scoter decoys were seldom made by Wheeler or any decoy maker, and this hollow-bodied example has lavish carving and a finely turned head.

A Surf Scoter decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler brought $21,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.
A Surf Scoter decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler brought $21,000 plus the buyer’s premium in February 2021. Image courtesy of Copley Fine Art Auctions and LiveAuctioneers.

The market for duck decoys is strong and resilient overall, Deeter stated. “Our company has been blessed with selling many great collections over the last few years, and while some of the old guard are missing, they are being replaced with new and enthusiastic collectors,” he said. “Many of the new collectors have deep pockets and are interested in quality pieces. Wheelers are doing fine right now. The Connecticut School is not soft but not on fire, so it’s probably a good time to pay attention to decoys from that area.”

Wheeler decoys generally sell in the range of $5,000 to $70,000, Deeter said, adding, “That’s a broad range, so a newer collector needs to do some homework to understand the significance of each piece.”

A cork body bluebill decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler secured $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

An undated cork-body bluebill decoy by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler secured $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

Among those affordable to beginning collectors are Wheeler’s cork-bodied decoys, such as a bluebill with an inset wooden tail and well-carved head that sold for $9,500 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021 at Guyette & Deeter, Inc., or a Canada goose in the same auction that took $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium.

Demographic trends for decoy collectors are varied, but they skew slightly towards veteran collectors for the highest-end examples, which tend to bring high six-figure prices. “Over the last 18 years, Copley has worked with collectors in almost every state in North America,” said O’Brien Jr. “As with most fields, there are three significant driving forces to collecting: passion, time, and money. It is often after people retire that they fully tap into all three of these.”

A cork body Canada goose by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler made $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

An undated cork-body Canada goose by Charles E. ‘Shang’ Wheeler, one of only a handful known, made $8,000 plus the buyer’s premium in November 2021. Image courtesy of Guyette & Deeter, Inc. and LiveAuctioneers.

That said, the decoy market is broad enough to satisfy collectors at all price points. “The great thing about decoy collecting is that there is something for everyone. There are more decoy collectors today than ever before,” said O’Brien Jr. “Entry levels for good decoys start in the hundreds of dollars and go all the way up to over a million. Wheeler’s cork decoys start in the hundreds, his wooden decoys start in the thousands, and on a few occasions, Copley has sold his works for six figures.”

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