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Mark Greenig: Dealing with duck decoys of unknown origin

A vintage matched pair of 1950s “Helbig?” magnum hollow mallards in good condition. MARK GREENIG/RECORD

The market for vintage duck decoys with proper heritage and visual appeal remains strong. Decoys such as Masons’, Perdew, Stevens’, Pratt, Crowell and others can cost you thousands of dollars. Many in the five figure category and up. The last time I checked, the world record for a wooden bird was $1.14 million. However, there are a multitude of vintage duck decoys with unknown origin which are quite valuable to many collectors. Such birds must have unique design, solid construction and visual appeal. Type of species is also important. Not all unknown decoys will meet this criteria, but many do. Such is the case with the mallard pair we will be discussing in this week’s segment.

To impress upon you the magnitude of this market consider the following.  The Hunting and Fishing Collectible magazine each issue has a segment titled, “Derelict Decoys.” The author illustrates and discusses the validity of the featured duck. I can assure you sometimes the highlighted bird looks as though it went through a battle zone. For some reason, such items have broad appeal to collectors. As you look at the two magnum mallards pictured remember they look almost mint compared to some decoys I have seen in the magazine mentioned.

This week’s featured mallard duck decoy pair come with little history. They were purchased from a retired Minnesota DNR worker. To the best of his knowledge, the pair came from Grand Rapids, Minn. The sellers’ best guess was they were made by an individual named “Helbig.” I don’t know if even the spelling on the last name is correct.

What I can share is they are absolutely grand birds, hollow construction and classic folk art appeal. Due to their size, they would definitely classify as magnum birds. It is estimated the pair were made in the 1950’s. Magnum decoys of that vintage are quite rare and will add considerable value. In addition, the fact they are a matched pair (same species, drake and hen) means more demand. Length of bird from tip of bill to end of tail is 20.5”. Width at the widest point is 8” and comes with a body depth of 3.75”.  As noted, body is two piece hollow construction with the head attached separately.

What is quite evident with these decoys, as with many folk art pieces, are the consistent styles used in their construction. The heads have a unique design which would make other decoys from this maker easy to identify. Just above the neck line is a cut that is likely found on this makers’ birds only. Notice there are no eyes of any kind, not even painted, on either duck. Another trademark clue for identifying this maker’s items. The top half of the body is 2.5” thick, the lower piece is 1.25”. Paint scheme is elementary, but quite good enough to easily see they are meant to be mallards. I share all these design characteristics because such methods are used by all collectors when attempting to identify a decoys’ maker. I have no doubt there are more of this maker’s carvings in our region.

The most challenging aspect of discussing birds with unknown origin is assessing value. If patient and you are willing to wait for the “right person” your return on such items will be much higher. I recommend trying to find private collectors to maximize your selling potential. These two birds would be welcomed additions to many collections across the country. Conservatively, I estimate value of this pair at $250. I know this is repetitive, but remember you can sell these two birds quite easily. Finding a similar pair in this condition is at best remote. Until next time, may all your searches be successful.