The Black Swans of Stevens

Updated: Aug 12

In his book, The Black Swan, Nassim Nicholas Taleb reveals how rare events truly shape outcomes and, when understood, create opportunity. This article outlines what species are truly rare among Stevens Decoys and the "Black Swans" you may be missing. My counts and conclusions are based on all the Stevens Decoys so far recorded from the collections of Evans, Ash, Hickey, Thompson, Bartlett, Mott and Muller and all living Stevens Decoy Collectors that I know, plus every decoy auction catalog from 1986 to today. Let's begin with what we know to be unknown.

Species Undiscovered. (Jan 2021)

Goose, Brant, Swan or shorebird decoys. Wood ducks, scoters, green-winged teal, shovelers, old-squaw. Regarding hens not found in species whereas drakes are known: canvasback, widgeon, bufflehead and teal.

Next, what's been found but only very few...

Species Exceedingly Rare (# of recorded examples).

(2) Coot, (2) Mergansers, one drake and one hen, (1) Gadwall hen and (1) Ruddy duck attributed to George. Also, the only known (1) Pintail drake and (1) Pintail hen , both with the unique flanged-tail, by George Stevens. There are (4) more Pintail hens, also by George, that have the traditional paddletails and long bodies made very similar to Mallard hens. If they are Pintail hens as they appear to be, I can't explain why there are so many hens compared to the one drake; a ratio opposite to all other records. I hope more drakes surface someday (at the next garage sale that I stop at would be nice). I've documented a couple of repainted Stevens decoys with the unique flanged tail, but I don't count repainted decoys in my studies.

Species commonly found (relative to Stevens).

Of the authenticated Stevens Decoys (430 as of January 2021), 98% are either; redheads, bluebills, blacks, mallards, canvasbacks, teal, widgeon, whistler, or bufflehead. That's only 9 different species of ducks. Collecting one of each would make a fine collection of Stevens Decoys. However, collecting pairs would be very difficult because, seemingly, the Stevens Brothers didn't make hen decoys during the first 15 years of their production, and thereafter, only in a few species.

It wasn't until late 1880's, during the glasseye period, that Stevens made hen decoys, and very few of those are made by Harvey. Many collectors fail to realize how few hen decoys exist and how few of those are in good original paint. To date, there are 23 mallard drakes made by Harvey (from all periods and those in good original paint), but only 4 mallard hens; and one destroyed.

There are only 6 George Stevens mallard drakes in original paint and only 3 hens recorded. There are 26 bluebills and 21 redhead drake decoys (paddletail model from all periods and in original paint) made by Harvey and only 5 bluebill/redhead hens (see more below). I have a loose theory that Harvey made but only 3 types of hen decoys; bluebills, redheads and mallards. Harvey was a bit of a conformist and a drake chauvinist.

Muller's book proposes that Harvey's redhead hen decoys have a touch of black paint on the bill tip and otherwise the same as his bluebill hens. That's very possible but it seems a nuance rather than a different species. George made a redhead hen decoy that is very different than his bluebill hens. Perhaps Harvey's hen decoys were used as hens in rigs of others species. But if that was Harvey's intent, why didn't he make a more balanced ratio?

George, once free from Harvey, produced hens to drakes at a ratio of 1:6 and he did so in more species. Anyway, if you're looking for a nice pair of Harvey Stevens Decoys, it has to be glasseye and I suggest it be a pair of mallards or bluebills. I've seen two bluebill hens with the white H. A. Stevens stencil; only 3 such white stencils are are known to exist. What about whistler hen decoys (excluding eclipse plumage) with original paint by either brother? There's only one whistler hen by George! I mean that literally and exclamatorily.

Black Swans

The term Black Swan is based on an ancient saying that presumed black swans did not exist – a saying that was applied to unpredictable events, very rare occurrences and, in more recent uses, those events hidden from us by our perceptions about rarity. In this case, I'm using Black Swans to describe those surprisingly rare examples hidden by our perception that they are somewhat common.

For example; Harvey Stevens glasseye Black Ducks in good original paint having fully visible crescents and speculum. Astonishingly, there are only 4 known to exist (not counting 2 that are painted in the New Jersey pattern). That qualifies as exceedingly rare in my book! I found one of the finest examples in St. Charles back in 2008. Fooled by randomness, I sold it the very next year. Once I realized my mistake, I kept a keen eye open for another. Luckily, I was able to buy back the same exact decoy in 2019.

Here's another Black Swan surprise: Sleeper decoys made by George Stevens. My book ignored distinguishing Sleeper decoys between Harvey and George. Muller's book tried to distinguish between them based on the theory that George's sleeper model has a "steeper hump". Travis Bryant distinguishes the Sleepers in a more logical manner and I believe he's got it right. Check it out here. As it turns out, George made but only a few Sleeper model decoys in his lifetime. One of those came to Internet auction a few years ago and it sold for very little. Admittedly, it was rather crude, worn and very folky looking, but nonetheless a rare decoy from George.

Most decoy collectors don't realize how rare it is to find any Stevens sleeper model decoy in good original paint. Of the 62 sleeper model in the database, only 44 are authenticated as Stevens Brothers, and of those only 9 are in good original paint; 2 Bluebills, 3 Redheads and 4 Whistlers. This is astonishing to me. Personally, I love the Whistler Sleeper model decoy. Peter Muller featured one on the back cover of his book; I believe he felt the same way about them.

Here's another Black Swan tip - don't be fooled by the recent number of good Stevens Decoys to come to auction to think such abundant opportunities will be common in the future. The third generational succession of Stevens Decoys has come full circle in a most extraordinary way! Sign up to get the breaking news!

Copyright 2020. Photography copyrighted by source. All rights reserved.

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