Updated: Mar 23
I begin with my regards and compliments to Zac Cote of Guyette & Deeter for his description of the "Stevens Brothers" decoys being offered this week on decoysforsale. I thought the decoys might be described as "original with minor touch up" because the pictures were better than the decoys. However, Zac gave the decoys a solid and honest assessment. At this level, perfect detection was not necessary nor was expertise in Stevens Decoys.
I remember when decoy auctioneers used the excuse that they "can't be experts on every decoy maker" as to why some decoys were attributed or described inaccurately. Today, that's rarely the case. The lack of so-called expertise doesn't mean research and consultation isn't warranted as part of their job to run a good auction house. Have you ever tried to consign a painting or rare antique with Sotheby's or Christie's without proof of the maker/artist or without provenance? It's nearly impossible. They want to know everything knowable. To do this, auction houses take three approaches to authenticating. As a decoy collector, you will be familiar with each.
The first and most important is Connoisseurship. In this context, connoisseurship means deep familiarity with the subject matter, medium and maker. Decoy collecting has more specialized experts than any other art form. Decoy auction houses have expertise in the matter and medium of all decoys and they have access to specialized experts - more on this in a moment.
The second element of authentication is Provenance or Historical Documents. When it comes to decoys; previous auction descriptions, photographs and records are as important as owner provenance. One of the reasons I record every Stevens decoy, no matter the condition or flawed attribution, is because I want to tie it back to it's history when it resurfaces. Sometimes a repair or restoration is revealed by an earlier description or photograph. A decoy's treatment after its been collected is often more important than its treatment while in service to the hunting rig.
The third method of authentication is Scientific Analysis. Scientific analysis has become entirely acceptable and accessible in the decoy community. Blacklight stations (ultraviolet light boxes), are now common at auction previews. X-ray images can be ordered if not already available for high-end decoys. Paint can be tested for lead. No single scientific method is entirely foolproof but when acceptable evidence is combined with connoisseurship and provenance then certainty, one way or the other, can be reasonably assured.
Back to Connoisseurship. I increasingly receive calls and photos from decoy auction houses asking my opinion on a Stevens Decoy. In most cases, I have already recorded the decoy in my database with details of it's condition and provenance. Jon Deeter and I talk about Stevens Decoys on regular intervals. His decoy connoisseurship is much broader and deeper than mine and yet he takes no excuse on Stevens. He wants to get everything right. The Copley team visits my house almost every spring. They often text me photos the moment a Stevens Decoy is being considered for consignment. It's hardly necessary for most examples, but when something is questionable - resources are gathered to get answers.
I've said before that it's much easier to collect Stevens Decoys today than it was 25 years ago. Well, this is true of many makers because of the vast amount of information instantly available to collectors. Today's expertise is built on former labors. Knowledge comes faster. Buyers are smarter. Sellers are more accountable. Caveat emptor is as dead as Latin literature because Seller's can't do business that way any longer. It's never going to be perfect, but it has permanently changed. This change, which I believe has happened over the past 30 years, has evolved us from decoy hunters and gathers to a cooperative society of decoy collectors and merchants. This is irreversible and scalable. Decoy collecting is here to stay. Yes, Mr. Barber would be very proud of us.