The McCleery Collection
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
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