In September 1944, thirty-four decoys from Joel Barber's legendary
collection were picked up by a moving company (Garrigan Moving
and Storage, 230 E. 63rd Street, New York City) from a folk art
gallery at 771 Fifth Avenue, where they had been on exhibition
since 1941. Tragically, however, the decoys were never delivered
to Barber's home. Although an extensive search was mounted for
them, the birds did not surface during Barber's lifetime and
their fate remains a complete mystery to this day.
Among the lost birds were some unique and irreplaceable treasures.
Luckily, a number of the birds were pictured in Wild Fowl
Decoys, so that we have some visual record for posterity. Others were simply recorded in tantalizingly brief notes
on the contents of the collection compiled after Joel's death
by his son David. The notes leave wide open spaces to the imagination.
What did the "swan with raised wings, Currituck Sound, North
Carolina" look like? Or the "sickle-billed curlew,
Nantucket Island, MA?" Unfortunately, we'll probably never
know, but it's great fun to speculate.
A list of the lost birds pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys,
either in photos or in Barber's watercolors and drawings, follows
with my comments. David Barber's descriptions, drawn from his
father's notes, are in bold. Note that Joel Barber was careful
to use duck (hen) and drake in describing the decoys.
Pair of eiders, Captain Harris Young, Ironbound Island,
Plates 69 and 70 (photographs)
Pages 103-110 and Plates 65-68 of Wild Fowl Decoys describe
in great and careful detail the duck tub these simple, hard-working
birds were used with and the "heroic" local method
of hunting sea ducks. They were given to Barber by their maker,
who also explained their usage and oversaw the drawings of the
tub. The pair was made about 1920 and collected by Barber in
Loon, Southport, Maine
Plate 71 (photograph)
By Albert Orne, the keeper of the Hendricks Head Light on Sheepscot
Bay. A unique Downeast decoy, fully described in Wild Fowl
Decoys and one of the few great legitimate loon decoys ever
made. If I could have only one of the lost birds back, this would
be it. Barber related, "When it came into my hands it still
carried in turns around its body, six or eight fathoms of tarred
line with a stone anchor attached. The ballast consisted of a
second stone, secured to the flat bottom by leather straps."
Barber dearly loved this bird; he created several watercolors
of it in use, which are now in the Shelburne Museum's collection.
A similar but not identical Orne loon, passed down through his family, is known to exist.
White-winged scoter, Monhegan Island, Maine
Plate 42 (diagram), Plate 75 (photograph)
A classic early, front-preening scoter by Gus Wilson, a superb
example of one of his greatest original forms.
Redhead with flapping wings, Lake Ontario
Plate 8 (watercolor)
By Captain Charlie DoVille, c. 1880. A working decoy, early and
one of a kind, the only handmade floating lure with flapping
wings I have ever seen or heard of. A tragic loss.
Blue-winged teal (stickup), Jamaica Bay, Long Island
Plate 33 (photograph)
By Captain John Whittaker of Amityville, c. 1860. Another early
and possibly unique bird, with raised wing carving and a split
tail, in some ways like an oversized shorebird.
Primitive snipe (one of pair), Jamaica Bay, LI
Plate 52, left (photograph)
A wonderful, early " " shorebird, also by John Whittaker,
c. 1850. The decoy at right in the photo is at Shelburne. A Shelburne-owned
watercolor of the two shorebirds by Barber carries the legend,
"Old snipe- souvenirs of early shorebird shooting- heads
of locust sapling tenoned into white cedar bodies- branch forms
Yellowleg snipe, (Kellum), Babylon, LI
plate 53, bottom (photograph)
A rigmate by Frank Kellum, its bill replaced with an old square
nail and also from Barber's collection, is at Shelburne. Kellum
is best known for his extraordinary stickup gull decoys, the
two best of which were collected by Barber. One, with its head
and bill pointing up at a pronounced angle, is at Shelburne;
the second, pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys, was traded to
George Ross Starr by Shelburne founder Electra Webb in exchange
for an Elmer Crowell redhead drake and was later part of the collection
of Dr. James M. McCleery.
Black-bellied plover, LI
Plate 56 (watercolor)
Identified in Wild Fowl Decoys as from Lawrence, on the
island's south shore.
Swimming sheldrake, Great South Bay, LI
Plate 90 (watercolor)
Probably made about 1880, with the head fashioned from a single
suggestively shaped piece of wood, a flowing meeting of trunk
and branch. Barber's legend at the bottom of the watercolor,
which was cropped out for the book, reads, "A decoy from
the battery setting of Mr.. Duncan Arnold, Babylon, LI. The body
is of yellow willow, the head of an apple-wood knot. It is shown
completely rigged for Battery use with anchor fastening and dangling
weight. Presented to the author by Mr. Arnold in 1922."
Canvasback wing duck, Elkton, MD
Plate 12 (photograph)
Found on the Blair family farm in Elkton , MD and given to Barber
by Walter Blair. Made for use with a battery rig on the Susquehanna
German decoy mallard
Plate 24 (photograph)
Barber's collecting extended to a number of European examples,
several of which are pictured in Wild Fowl Decoys and
are in the collection at Shelburne. This lost mallard is the
wildest looking of them all.
Centennial broadbill, Benjamin Holmes, Stratford, CT
Plate 80 (watercolor)
Three other Holmes scaup from Barber's collection are at Shelburne,
including a bird with a considerably thinner and more fluid body
form. The lost bird was originally owned by Captain Charles Delancey
"Cappie" Wicks Sr. of Stratford and given to Barber
by his son "Young Cappie." According
to Connecticut decoy historian Henry Chitwood, Cappie Wicks Sr.,
who worked as a market gunner and guide for many years, "used
more important decoys by Laing, Holmes and other gifted makers
than any other area resident." In Wild Fowl Decoys Barber passed on Young Cappie Wick's story that the bird was
"one of a group awarded a Gold Medal at the Philadelphia
Centennial Exposition in 1876." Barber dubbed his decoy
the "Centennial Broadbill," a name that has stuck to
this style of Holmes bluebill ever since. No records of the Exposition
have been found to prove or disprove the claim. Later writers
have assumed, without justification from Barber's account as
I read it, that Holmes made all of the prize winners and have
embellished on the story. Bill Mackey is clearly most at fault.
He pictures a turned-head Laing in American Bird Decoys,
with the caption, "Greater Scaup by Ben Holmes. Several
turned-head decoys were among the dozen he exhibited at the Centennial
Exposition ... This decoy ... is one of them." Mackey slipped
at least twice on the photo caption, as Holmes is not known to
have ever made turned-head birds. Mackey further damns himself
in the text after telling the story of "the dozen"
by saying, "One senior collector has personally handled
and placed his stamp of approval on at least thirty-six of the
original dozen. One wishes the real exhibition models could rise
and flap their wings." Indeed. I think it is safe to say
only that Holmes is said to have made this single prize winner
and that it is lost.
Sleeping black duck, Stratford, CT
Plate 51 (photograph)
Looks like an early (turn-of-the-century) Wheeler to me, made
when he was still very much under the influence of Laing's work.
A rigmate, also from Barber's collection and a gift from Wheeler,
is at Shelburne.
Sleeping broadbill, Stratford, CT
Plate 47 (photograph)
By Albert Laing, a rigmate to the Mackey "Holmes" turned-head
described above. Another rigmate, also from Barber's collection,
is at Shelburne. Like most of Barber's many Laings, this one
probably came by way of Shang Wheeler, who used and repainted
Bufflehead, Weedsport, NY, the Montezuma Marshes
Plate 57, bottom right (photograph)
Yes, a nice little Stevens that appears to be in fine original
condition. A rare species from the Stevens brothers;
the number of known examples can easily be counted on one hand.
Snipe, Nantucket Island, MA
Plate 54 upper right (photograph)
An odd primitive shorebird, similar to the early "rocker"
style Nantucket birds but with unusual two-piece construction
and a small knob-shaped head. One of a kind to my knowledge.
Redhead drake, Barnegat Bay, Tuckerton, NJ
Plate 98, right (photograph)
A rare species by Harry V. Shourds that appears to be in original
paint. Found "adrift on the bay" according to Barber,
who did not know who had made it.
Old Pintail, Elkton, MD
Plate 108 (photograph)
Found by Barber in the loft of the workshop at the Blair family
farm in Elkton,
" a legacy from an old man named Maxwell, a so-called 'tenant
gunner' who for many years occupied a shanty on the shore below
the house." An important missing link to the so-called "Blair
school" of early Delaware River decoys.
Canada goose, Barnegat Bay, NJ
Color plate D (watercolor)
By Jessie Birdsall, given to Barber by the maker. Barber commented,
"Like all collectors, I take great pleasure in acquiring
specimens. I carried that Goose back to New York, wrapped in
a second-hand sheet of brown paper, too small to cover or disguise
the Goose. Fellow travelers were amused but any possible embarrassment
was overcome by the pleasure of possession." This was one
of Barber's favorite birds and is depicted in several drawings
and watercolors in the Shelburne collection.
Canvasback drake, Chesapeake Bay, MD
Color plate A or Plate 40 (watercolors)
A so-called "Cleveland" canvasback, believed to have
been made about 1880 by John B. Graham of Charlestown, Maryland
and gunned over on the Susquehanna Flats by President Grover
Cleveland. Barber owned a pair from the rig; happily, the other
is in the Shelburne collection.
Swan with raised wings, Currituck Sound, North Carolina
I can see the eyebrows of Carolina collectors rising as they
read this. Another possibly unique bird.
Sickle-billed curlew, Nantucket Island, MA
Sheldrake duck, Stony Brook, LI
Black-bellied plover, LI
Black duck, Stratford, CT
Laing? Holmes? Wheeler? Disbrow? Great examples from Barber's
collection by all of them are at Shelburne. Another Stratford
black duck originally in Barber's collection, a thin-bodied turned-head
by Laing, was given to the Boston Museum of Fine Arts by Mrs.
Whistler drake, Connecticut Shore, Housatonic River
Barber's collection, which is rich in great Stratford decoys
because of his long association with Shang Wheeler, includes
several whistlers by Laing and Holmes. I suspect that this one,
however, may have been from Milford.
Golden plover, Nantucket Island, MA
Golden plover, Nantucket Island, MA
Two different birds.
Black-bellied plover, Cape Cod, MA
Crowell? Strangely, although Barber was good friends with
Joe Lincoln and collected many fine examples of his work, he
does not seem to have connected with Crowell, who was at least
equally well known and working at the same time not far away
on the Cape. Barber's collection contained no first-rate examples
of Crowell's work, an almost incomprehensible omission.
Whistler drake, Lake Champlain
Possibly by George Bacon, the region's only important carver, who specialized in goldeneyes.
Sleeping redhead, Pointe Mouillee, MI
Probably by Nate Quillen. Barber acquired several Quillen
birds, including an outstanding pintail drake now at Shelburne,
from the Detroit carver Lee Smits.
Canvasback duck, St. Clair Flats, MI
Warin? Chambers? J. R.W.? Barber's collection includes a
number of outstanding Toronto area decoys, including the finest
known Warin pintail, geese by Chambers and Warin, several redheads
and black ducks by Chambers, and a J.R.W. teal.
Canvasback duck, Lake Erie, Sandusky, OH
A rare bird from a little represented area. Although Lake
Erie supported a number of early gunning clubs, relatively little
is known about the decoys used in the area. Because of the lack
of information and superficial similarities in style, many early
Ohio decoys have been misidentified as Blair school birds from
the Delaware River.
Old mallard drake, Kankake Marshes, Northern Indiana
Another rarity from an area where few early decoys
are known. An extraordinary group of high headed pintails from the Marshes recently surfaced.
David Barber wrote of the lost birds, "It was [my father's]
wish and hope that some day they would be found and would resume
their place in his collection." Although the chances are
slim that any of the birds will ever be found, we can all hold
out that wish and hope as a means of keeping faith with Joel
Barber, the man who invented us all. So collectors, keep your
eyes open. You never know what you might find tomorrow. And what
a find the lost birds would be. P.S. Give me a call.