Salisbury -- The first two wooden ducks in the catalog for the National Antique Decoy Auction came to the attention of the museum when a Delaware resident brought them for appraisal in a plastic bag.
Auctioneer Richard Oliver, who will conduct the two-day auction, for which the festivities begin Friday, is still astonished. There they were, a rare pair of Ira Hudson teals, in the original paint, in a plastic bag.
Their owner had found them in his attic and wanted to know what they'd bring at auction.
"I said, 'They'll bring enough to buy you a new car,' and he said, 'I'd like to have a Jaguar!' " Mr. Oliver recalls. "And there they are, in a bag. . . ."
The owner is likely to have his Jaguar, says Mr. Oliver -- the decoys are described in the catalog as possibly the best example of the Chincoteague, Va., carver's work ever to come on the market.
The Hudson ducks are two of 900 items scheduled to be sold in the auction at the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury. It's the second year for the auction, a fund-raiser for the museum, and last year there were 700 registered bidders, said museum public relations coordinator Sheri Olsen Kelly.
"We're pretty sure that it will do a $1 million hammer price," says Mr. Oliver of the auction. There is a commission for the auctioneer that is approximately 10 percent, he says, and the museum gets a small percentage of that, with the remainder of the sale price going to the consignor.
"The biggest collection [for sale] is coming from Arizona," says Mr. Oliver. It's the collection of Richard and Clarine Menzel, duck hunting enthusiasts originally from Oshkosh, Wis., now living in Phoenix. "And we have a phone bidder from Italy!"
Duck decoys have come a long way from the muddy streams and lakes where they began as "shootin' rigs" carved and painted by hunters. Originally they just had to be good enough to fool a duck; now they have been elevated to the status of folk art, valued for aesthetic reasons.
"It used to be that all the decoy collectors I knew had been duck hunters," says the Ward Museum's consulting curator, Samuel xTC H. Dyke. "I would say now a significant number of them don't hunt and never did."
"Certainly they are an accepted piece of American folk art," agrees Mr. Oliver. "Sculpturally, they're very pleasing, and they've got paint. It's the artist's impression of the bird. . . . People who collect these also collect Winslow Homers, some pretty significant things."
If decoys have moved quickly from working to art status, so have the prices. Since decoys became widely recognized as an art form in the mid-1960s, prices have risen steadily with a huge jump in the mid-1980s. In 1983, the record price for a decoy was $28,000; three years later, the record (which still holds) went to $319,000.
One of the early collectors was singer Andy Williams, who paid a then-record price of $14,000 for two decoys in the 1960s. He'd seen duck decoys at Hyannisport, the summer home of the Kennedy family, and wanted some for himself. The late President John F. Kennedy was also a collector.
"There's a tremendous private collection base," says Mr. Oliver. "The dealers aren't the backbone of this industry. Most of the people who are involved in this are extremely knowledgeable."
The auction at the Ward Museum is the largest in the country, according to museum officials and Mr. Oliver. It opens on Friday, Sept. 30, with a Discovery Decoy Auction. Mr. Oliver says there will be 450 to 500 decoys on sale at the one-day event, ranging in price from $10 to $1,000.
"If they want something for purely decorative reasons, they can have it," Mr. Oliver says. "It's a real fun day."
On Saturday, the big auction begins with the sale of Items 1 and 2, the Ira Hudson rare teal drake and hen. It will be held starting at 10:30 a.m. both days in the back courtyard of the Ward Museum. Auction catalogs are available for $32.50.
In conjunction with the auction, the museum has scheduled a special exhibit, Classic Hunting Decoys and Sporting Art. It will display some of the world's most expensive and rare decoys, says Ms. Kelly, and will be displayed in the Art LaMay Gallery through Jan. 1. On display will be the rarest Mason wood duck in existence, in its first showing in more than 30 years. It's part of the William J. Mackey collection of duck decoys, and other parts of the collection on display include a pair of decoys carved by Lem and Steve Ward, the Crisfield carvers for whom the museum is named.
"This year is the first year that we've gone entirely to the hunting decoy collection," says Mr. Dyke, the curator. "We've tried to locate and get decoys that have never been displayed."
For information on the auction or the exhibit, call the museum at (410) 742-4988.
IF YOU GO . . .
The Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art is located at 909 Schumaker Drive in Salisbury.
The Classic Hunting Decoys and Sporting Art exhibit opens Friday, Sept. 30 and runs through Jan. 1.
A Gala Collectors Preview Party will be held from 7 p.m. to 10 p.m. Friday, with tickets priced at $25.
The Discovery Auction is also that day, and the National Antique Decoy Auction begins Saturday.
For more information, call the Ward Museum of Wildfowl Art in Salisbury at (410) 742-4988.