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5 myths about Stevens Decoys

Stevens Decoy myth

Myth #1 Stevens Decoys were “factory” decoys.

Books written by Joel Barber and William Mackey promoted the concept that Stevens made a “factory decoy”. It's totally understandable considering that Harvey, and later George, had promoted themselves as a “Manufacturer of Decoy Ducks”.

Stevens Decoy Ducks business card

Fact: Stevens Decoys were all handmade in a small woodshop. Stevens never used machinery to shape or duplicate decoys. Harvey Stevens is still recognized as the first decoy maker to produce decoys for a national market. That said, the "Factory" misnomer needs to go away.

Myth #2. Humpbacks were early models.

Stevens Decoy sleeper model

A once common misunderstanding about Stevens decoys is the so-called “early” humpback. However, nearly all the humpbacks are from the glasseye period beginning in the late 1880’s. The tackeye decoys are the early period, 1865 to the mid-1880’s. Fact: During the glasseye period, Stevens made two models of decoys: the standard decoy (some are stenciled as such) and the sleeper decoy (never having the "standard" portion of the stencil). Examining the Stevens decoy templates at the Shelburne Museum in Vermont, the teardrop shaped template used to make the humpback is labeled “sleeper” in Harvey’s handwriting.

Myth #3. It’s difficult to tell the difference between Harvey’s decoys and George’s decoys.

It’s a lazy excuse for the auction houses to label a Stevens decoy as "Stevens Brothers". And when they assign a first name to Stevens, it's too often wrong. I've seen decoys with the name branded or stamped on the underside and they still attribute the decoy to the opposite brother. Does it matter? Heck yes if you're Stevens collector! We see the brothers as two separate decoy makers - both having their own style, label, advertising, time periods, and artistic pride to be different from the other. We owe it to them to distinguish their decoys accordingly. Fact: There are several easy ways to tell the difference between a Harvey decoy and a George decoy. Setting aside rare exceptions to every rule – here are some surprisingly easy rules to follow:

  • · All tackeye decoys – Harvey.

  • · All sleeper model decoys – Harvey.

  • · All symmetrically balanced decoys – Harvey. The body is thickest at the center of the length. The tail comes off the gradual slope of the body at the horizontal center (and slightly higher on his tackeye period decoys). Harvey's patterns and combing are very consistent. His evolution is logically streamlined towards the "perfect" decoy.

  • · Anything different than the symmetrically balance – George. Remember, George produced decoys only during the glasseye period. His variations are whimsical and creative. His decoys have thick and thin necks, variable head and body shapes, elongated and flanged tails, nautical forms, folky and creative paint patterns. The body is thickest behind the center of the length. The tail comes off a steep slope from the body extending just lower than the horizontal center.

  • · Anything in the nautical form – George. George also made more species and more hens for his drakes.

  • · And finally, a little used method that is remarkably reliable: Harvey's decoy heads have rounded necks with concaved sides, whereas George's decoy heads have squarer necks with only slightly concaved sides. The few exceptions of George making very thin necks are easily identifiable by elongated or irregular (non-symmetrical) body shapes.

Stevens Decoy difference between George and Harvey makers

Myth #4. There are too many fakes.

Stevens Decoy fakes and forgeries

Fact: Valuable art invites forgery. It's practically a badge of honor. What makes you a decoy collector rather than a mere gatherer is called connoisseurship. I used to get very frustrated any time I saw a fake Stevens. Today, I see it as the challenge of collecting any famed decoy maker. Of the 650+ decoys I've recorded related or attributted to Stevens, only 37 (6%) do I consider an attempted "fake" . Worthy, but far from being prolific. Most of us evolved as waterfowl hunters and as such we learned how to identify birds from afar and lead a dead shot. It took time to get good at it. Being a decoy hunter is an equally challenging sport; it requires resources, practice, missing the mark on occasion, and enjoying the pursuit. If it were easy, the challenge would be meaningless to a collector.

Myth #5 Stevens Decoys are too rare and prices are too volatile.

This myth can be applied to several great makers whereas some believe that all the good examples are collected, or that competition for quality is too stiff, or that a secret society has influence over the market. All nonsense. Fact: Regarding Stevens, only 12% of the 650+ recorded examples are in legacy collections unlikely to be sold in the next decade – beyond that, it’s an annual and endless migration of decoys. Stevens made only 9 species in great volume so it isn’t difficult to establish a very well-rounded collection. The only secret influence is the unknowable element of self-interest and the invisible hand of free market enterprise (see Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith, 1776). Lastly, art prices are always going to be volatile and knowledge favors the brave.

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