It is our hope that this site will provide the kind of information necessary to keep counterfeit decoys, both blatant and subtle, out of the hands of serious collectors.
The astronomical values and prices paid for American folk art, specfically fishing decoys, pose an enormous temptation for talented woodworkers and craftsmen with basements full of power tools to spend a few hours of work producing simple fish carvings. Such effort can net a talented craftsman several thousand dollars, because there seems to be no end to the gulliblity of enthusiatic collectors.
As with Tiffany glass, Shaker furniture, and hundreds of other valuable collectibles, there is never a shortage of people who want to believe they've stumbled across treasure and and an apparently equal number of unscrupulous con-men willing to make such dreams come true.
Fishing decoy, 6.5", carved, painted wood and tin. Artist, Vernon Baggs, Kalkaska, Michigan, mid-1980's
The decoy above is one of the most highly prized pieces in many collections. Rich in color, unmistakeably American, it seems to represent an uncomplicated folk art statement. Unfortunately, it's a little too good to be true. Each of the dozens of known examples is practically identical and was produced in the 1980's as a conscious attempt to replicate early Michigan decoys of the 1930's.
Fishing decoys, 6.5" & 6". Carved, painted wood and tin in the manner of Oscar Peterson, mid-1980's
The work of Michigan's Oscar Peterson seems to provide an unlimited opportunity for forgers.
Fish Decoy, 4.5". Carved, painted wood and tin in the manner of Oscar Peterson, mid-1980's
Peterson's whimsical portrayals of fish for both fishing lues and decorative pieces have spawned hundreds, if not thousands of imitations, many indistinguishable from the originals.
Detail of Fish Decoy, 4.5". Carved, painted wood and tin in the manner of Oscar Peterson, mid-1980's
What makes Peterson's work such an easy mark is his distinctive painting style and his bold, almost cartoonish carving of natural forms. While his work is certainly unique, it is easily replicated by skillled woodworkers who are familiar with the style. Since the style is so dstinctive, it is easily spotted by collectors who naturally assume that what they are seeing is the real McCoy.
Peterson's work, unfortunately, is not the only style which is reproduced for sale as genuine.
The ad pictured above, widely run in antique and fishing magazines, is a good demonstration of the fact that the whole range of the fishing decoy art form is prey for the unscrupulous.
All the items pictured in the ad are believed to be forgeries and the following letter explains some of the intricacies of the scam....
I have collected decoys for a number of years and have collaborated on a number of books on the subject and have dealt heavily in decoys in the past few years. The subject decoys (in the ad) are brand new decoys being sold by a firm in Minneapolis. They are sold for less than $20 each and that is fine and dandy, but many dealers are selling these as genuine old decoys. They are not old at all, they are artificially aged.
I have yet to discern exactly how, but I'm sure they are tumbled, either in a Minnesota stream in a basket or more likely agitated in a washing machine containing some solution. A few years back, a company in Virginia sold a solution called "Wood Age" to enhance gun stocks, deepening the depth of the staining process somehow.
In talking to the dealer (who placed the ad) I was told he had "12 pickers" scouring the countryside. He told me, "We find a lot of decoys and we sell a lot of decoys." I would assume that he has in fact 12 carvers working for him; there seems to be that many (different) styles that he sells. I ordered fish from him..... and all look as if they came out of Kimball's "Decoy Book Volume II".
All the fish are new; they are well made. They act in the water just as the old decoys do. To tell these new made fish is difficult, but not impossible. I've found a few characteristics which should ring a few bells. They are:
1. The fish themselves seem to be all equally dirty, not the aged blackness of a 75 year old fish, but a "dusty" kind of dirt.
2. The damage to the fish seems to have been done only by banging aganst fins. There are only straight lines of damage on the fish, no spear pricks, no bad gouges or major dings.
3. All rust on the bodies seems to be new orange rust, not the old brown rust associated with age. Most of the rust on the fins looks recent, light and orange, not the established crusty metal-destroying rust of genuine age.
4. When a group of these are seen together, one thing is quite evident: none show any major damage whatsoever, no missing fins, no broken tails, no chunks of wood missing. The odds of finding a dozen fish totally intact after 35-40 years of use must be astronomical.
We are still currently studying these "fish". Under ulra-violet light, they show no paint touch up, no glued cracks. They are troublesome and I would hate to see a new collector taken in by them. They are found at all the flea markets, most of the shows and many shops. We as collectors/dealers, must make people aware of them.
Thank you for printing this letter.
Dominic Torella III
Nick's Wood Shop
Aus Gres, MI