The McCleery Collection

Robert Shaw
Canada goose by Elmer Crowell

Over the course of some twenty-five years of intensely focused collecting, Dr. James Merida McCleery built what is widely considered the finest collection of wildfowl decoys ever assembled. Driven and informed by his passionate love of wild birds and hunting, Dr. McCleery filled seemingly every corner of his home in Pasadena, Texas with vintage duck and shorebird decoys, snipe whistles, duck calls, shell boxes, powder tins, and other artifacts of the hunt. He changed the way collectors everywhere approached the decoy, and his passing marks the end of an era in the history of decoy collecting.

Born in Guthrie, Oklahoma in 1924, Jim McCleery was an active sportsman as a young man. He greatly enjoyed hunting, fishing and trapping with his father, brother, and friends, and spent as much time as he could in the wild. He also developed an abiding interest in falconry, raising wild hawks from eggs and training them to hunt with him. He remained deeply committed to raptors throughout his life, continuing to practice the art of falconry for many years and leading legislative efforts for their protection.

After serving in the Navy during World War II, Jim McCleery began studying to become a physician. Unfortunately, he contracted transverse spinal myelitis while in medical school in 1953, an event that altered the course of his life. As he often put it, he "lost his legs" to the disease and was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of his life. He moved to Houston for treatment and eventually became a pathologist at the Bayshore Medical Center in nearby Pasadena, where he worked until shortly before his death on January 3, 1999.

Despite his physical limitations, Dr. McCleery made sure that hunting and fishing remained central to his life. His disability only intensified his love of wild life. He kept fish, hawks, tropical birds, and turtles in and outside his home over the years, and although he could no longer hunt himself, he loved nothing better than to hear his friends' stories of their own escapades in the field.

Dr. McCleery began collecting bird carvings casually in the early 1960s and soon turned his attention from decorative pieces to hunting birds. These certainly served as reminders of the pleasures of his youth, but, perhaps more importantly, they connected him with the rich history of American wildfowling, which became a subject of passionate study. He networked with the small but steadily growing number of decoy collectors around the country and soon became acquainted with such key figures as William J. Mackey, Jr., Adele Earnest, Joseph French, Harold Sorenson, and Dr. George Ross Starr.

Starr, a Massachusetts-based collector, had known Joel D. Barber, the first decoy collector, and he provided Jim McCleery with a link to the earliest days of decoy collecting. Barber, an urbane New York architect who observed that "of all the birds subject to attraction by decoys, I am, perhaps, the most susceptible bird of all," became obsessed with decoys in the 1920s, and his 1934 book, Wild Fowl Decoys,, is the seminal study on what he called "floating sculpture." Dr. McCleery studied Barber's charming book and the writings and collections of other pioneers, and he began to form his own concept of what a decoy collection might be.

When William Mackey's vast and justly renowned collection of decoys came to auction in the summer of 1973, Dr. McCleery saw his chance to begin building an entirely different type of collection than anyone had ever attempted before. He envisioned a collection of masterworks and set his sights on the bellwether of the Mackey collection, a long-billed curlew by William Bowman. When the hammer fell on his bid of $10,500 for the bird, jaws dropped. No one had ever even contemplated such a price for a decoy. Dr. McCleery's position as the pacesetter in the decoy world was established, and he continued to play a leading role for the rest of his life. His vision consistently kept him ahead of the curve, and where he led, others eventually followed.

More than anyone before him, Jim McCleery brought connoisseurship to the decoy. Nothing escaped his highly refined eye, disciplined from years of examining the fine details of slide cultures under the microscope. Before turning to decoys, he built fine collections of stamps and coins, objects for which the tiniest variance in pattern, color, or condition can often determine value. His disability also undoubtedly sharpened his focus. Since travel was difficult for him, he had to rely on photographs far more than most collectors, and he learned to read their complex and deceptive language with great skill. Because he looked so hard, he almost invariably saw things that others missed. More than one fellow collector has observed that Jim McCleery could tell more looking at a photograph of a bird than most could discern with the bird in their hands.

One example of Dr. McCleery's attention to detail will suffice for all. Shorebirds were one of his special loves and in many ways form the heart of his collection. Before he began collecting, shorebirds were largely approached as an adjunct to floating duck and goose lures. Jim McCleery was convinced that shorebirds were central to the story of the decoy, however, and his collection was almost evenly divided between floating lures and shorebird stickups, a balance no one had considered previously. He knew the wild birds intimately; I recall talking with him at length about the elastic quality of the long-billed curlew's lower mandible and other seemingly arcane details of shorebird anatomy and behavior. Perhaps not surprisingly then, he was the only collector I have known who insisted that the sticks supporting his shorebirds conform exactly to the length of the legs of the living birds they represent.

Dr. McCleery's vision was broad and encompassing. He saw the art of the gunning decoy whole and with greater clarity than anyone before him, and his extraordinary collection represents the very best of what the decoy has to offer. While many other collections concentrate on works from a particular region or related set of carvers, the McCleery collection contains masterworks from many different North American gunning regions-from the Canadian Maritimes to South Carolina, from the upper Midwest to Louisiana, and west to California and Oregon. It includes an extremely wide range of species-doves, owls, and crows; plume birds such as herons, gulls and terns; and a rich mix of ducks, geese and shorebirds-and an equally diverse range of forms-including feeding birds, turned-head preeners, swimmers, sentinels, runners, standers and sleepers. It also covers the gamut from the primitive to the sophisticated, from tiny cork-bodied "peeps" and roothead herons to the highly polished works of Crowell, Dilley and the Ward Brothers. No other collector has ever gathered a wider variety of the highest quality decoys, and by focusing intently on the special qualities of individual birds, Jim McCleery built a collection that was, paradoxically, far greater than the sum of its parts.

Dr. McCleery was a proud but genuinely modest man. He never sought attention, although his high-profile collecting brought it to him. He collected for the best reasons—love and intellectual passion for the objects of his desire. Although he was a fierce competitor, he had no enemies, and I never heard him utter a derogatory word about anyone. He was a gentle man and a gentleman. He was unfailingly generous, willing to share his collection and knowledge with anyone who evinced a glimmer of interest in his decoys. The dispersal of his collection may be seen as Jim McCleery's final act of sharing. I know he would hope above all that the birds he loved so much bring similar joy to their future caretakers.

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