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  • Sotheby's To Offer Waterfowl Decoys By Elmer Crowell
    March 3, 2005 NEW YORK.

    Waterfowl Decoys by Elmer Crowell.

    On May 19, 2005 Sotheby's New York will once again offer for sale American Waterfowl Decoys from the esteemed Collection of the late Dr. James McCleery. The offering will feature what is perhaps the most important group of shorebirds by master carver Elmer Crowell to ever appear at auction, including the feeding "dust-jacket" Black-Bellied Plover, illustrated on the cover of William J. Mackey's American Bird Decoys, the authoritative treatise on the subject published in 1965, which is estimated to sell for $200/250,000. Another standing Black-Bellied Plover, nearly identical to that which is pictured on the cover of Mackey's book, is also estimated to bring $200/250,000. Three other shorebirds, including two outstanding Yellowlegs (est. $25/35,000 and $35/45,000) and a Peep will also be offered (est. $20/30,000). Consigned by the daughters of the late Dr. James M. McCleery, the decoys will be included in Sotheby's sale of Important Americana on May 19, 2004.

    Nancy Druckman, Senior Vice President and Director of Sotheby's Folk Art Department, said, "Following the enormous success of the January 2000 watershed sale of American Waterfowl Decoys from the Distinguished Collection of Dr. James McCleery, Sotheby's is again honored to represent Dr. McCleery's daughters in the sale of these five superlative examples of Elmer Crowell's work. There is a very strong and expanding market for outstanding examples of American Waterfowl Decoys, with a broad spectrum of dedicated decoy collectors and a larger audience of collectors of American Folk Art that recognize the importance of these works. These rare hunting birds combine Crowell's legendary artistry in carving, and application of paint and hue, with the remarkable provenance of Mackey and McCleery. I am also delighted that, as he did for the 2000 sale, Robert Shaw, noted author and expert in the field, will be contributing his expertise to our auction catalogue."

    Dr. James McCleery, a pathologist whose early love of wildlife led him to decoy collecting after an illness confined him to a wheelchair, died in January of 1999. He combined a knowledge of and passion for wildfowl with a keen eye for good paint and form to assemble the best private decoy collection in the world. The vast majority of his collection was sold at Sotheby's, with Guyette and Schmidt, in a landmark auction held in January 2000 which totaled nearly $11 million, and included an outstanding Sleeping Canada Goose by Crowell that sold for $684,500, at the time a record for a decoy at auction. The McCleery sale was the most important sale of its kind since that of William J. Mackey's Collection in the 1970s, which included both of the renowned Black-Bellied Plovers mentioned above.

    Elmer Crowell - Anthony Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) was one of the most versatile, prolific and consistent of all professional bird carvers. Crowell apparently carved a few decoys for his own use early on, although he strongly preferred to use live decoys, tamed birds tethered to deceive their wild kin. In 1900 Crowell was hired by Dr. John C. Phillips, a wealthy Boston physician, to manage his hunting camp at Wenham Lake, north of Boston. Crowell worked for Dr. Phillips for about ten years and sold a number of extraordinary one-of-a-kind decoys and decorative carvings to Phillips and his influential friends. The fifty year old Crowell turned to carving full-time in 1912, working out of a small shop outside his home in East Harwich, Massachusetts. Elmer Crowell's best work was done before 1925 and is unsurpassed for its combination of sculptural power and subtle brush work.

    The "Dust-Jacket" Plovers - Highlighting the sale are two outstanding Black Bellied Plovers, one of which is illustrated on the cover of William Mackey's seminal work, American Bird Decoys, regarded as the most authoritative and meaningful work on the subject. The decoy, which is in the feeding position, exhibits a blending of paint and an evocation of hue and depth that rivals the most sophisticated artists such as Winslow Homer or Frederic Church, and is estimated to sell for $200/250,000. The other Black Bellied Plover, in the standing position, is nearly identical to the standing plover on the cover of Mackey's book, and is most likely from the same rig or group of decoys used for hunting. It has a particularly beautiful and rounded and sculptural form, and is also estimated to bring $200/250,000. In describing the plovers, Mackey notes, "Elmer Crowell at his best. These Black-bellied Plovers combine his detailed carving of wing and tail feathers with the bold, true paint pattern that made him a master. Though the decoys are in fine condition, the scattering of shot holes is proof of their baptism by fire." These two hunting birds both date to circa 1900 and are also pictured in Call to the Sky: The Decoy Collection of James M. McCleery, M.D., by Robert Shaw. Mrs. Druckman noted, "The combination of quality of the carving, masterful handling of paint, condition and provenance make these works of art irresistible to any serious collector."

    Also part of this outstanding offering are two Yellowlegs, one in the running position (est. $25/35,000) and the other in a standard pose (est. $35/45,000). As with the plovers, these birds exhibit a masterful form and paint which is characteristic of Crowell's best work.

    Pictured together with the aforementioned Black-Bellied Plovers in Shaw's Call to the Sky is an exquisitely rendered diminutive Peep. Dating to circa 1910, the Peep is in outstanding original paint and is estimated to sell for $20/30,000.