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Mark Greenig: Those marvelous Mason decoys

Two painted eye original paint Mason duck decoys. On the left is a hen blue bill. The other bird is a drake canvasback, and both are highly collectible. Mark Greenig/Record

Most decoy collectors will agree Mason duck decoys, of Detroit, Mich., are the most collectible of all factory decoys. The decoys are elegant in design, visually appealing, well constructed and readily available. Put those all together and you have the “perfect storm” in the decoy collecting arena. Let’s get into detail on Mason decoys, with special emphasis this week on their painted eye grade economy model.

My research found some discrepancies in the founding date of this company. Records state anywhere from 1886 to 1896. I believe my most accurate information comes from the text titled, “Mason Decoys”, a Hillcrest publication. It is generally accepted William James Mason began making duck decoys in a shed behind his home, located at 49 Tuscola Street in Detroit, Mich. In 1903 the company was moved to an upstairs site in a lumber and coal company. It is believed at that time lathes were in place to turn out bodies for these decoys. All heads were made by hand.

Future moves continued as the business grew. The company actually hired a chemist for paint making. Railroad cars of cedar, for decoy construction, were shipped to the business. Records state there were literally hundreds of decoys, finished and unfinished in the business attic when the company folded in 1924. What made these decoys so popular back then was the scarcity of food, especially during the war. Because of their decoying ability for hunters, they helped to feed many families during hard times.

The Mason Company made five grades of decoys. From most expensive to least expensive they include the Premier, Challenge, Glass eye, Painted eye and tack eye. Generally speaking, the higher grade, the more valuable.

The only twist in that statement is the species of duck. Some are extremely rare and making value out of reach for the common man or woman. The painted and tack eye models were considered their economy grade. The painted eye is just what the name implies, eyes were painted on the decoy head. Don’t expect them to be neat and level — they are not.

A note worth remembering is all Masons have a smooth surface.

I have read some hunters purchased painted eye grade because at the end of each hunting season they simply left them out in the field or discarded them and bought new birds the following year. Such behavior leads some collectors to believe the economy grades are the most rare. I can’t subscribe to that philosophy. My limited experience has shown both painted and tack eye decoys readily available in the open market.

Value will depend on a multitude of factors. With painted eye models that includes species, condition, date of manufacture (older decoys have more value) and any special history, such as previous owners.

Many Masons have owners or hunting club brands on their bottom. If the bird comes with collectible lead weights add more value.

In regards to species, space doesn’t allow me the luxury of listing them. However, I can assure you at least 23 species of ducks, geese and shorebirds were produced by the Mason Company.

Good Mason decoys are expensive and can easily run into five figures. Painted eye models in good condition will begin around $75 to $250. A rare/mint condition painted eye model can easily be worth thousands of dollars. So collectible are Mason decoys that good money is paid for separate heads and bodies. The Internet is a great source to check history and values, whether you’re looking to buy or sell a Mason decoy. As always, do your homework before doing business with one of those “Marvelous Masons.” Until next time, may all our searches be successful.