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Decoy ducks bring in big bucks

A Ruggles canvasback decoy subject bidding battle thincluded former Gov. Jim Thompswas highlight Guyette Schmidt   Deeter auctilast month

A Ruggles canvasback decoy, the subject of a bidding battle that included former Gov. Jim Thompson, was a highlight of the Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter auction last month at Pheasant Run in St. Charles. | For Sun-Times Media

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Updated: June 13, 2013 6:36PM

The bidding battle came down to former Illinois Gov. Jim Thompson and one of the top collectors in the country, who won and bought the canvasback drake decoy by Henry Ruggles for $74,750.

That was one of 12 world auction records for maker last month at the Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter decoy auction at Pheasant Run in
St. Charles. The auction precedes the annual National Antique Decoy & Sporting Collectibles Show, which is put on by the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association.

That Ruggles canvasback was one of the glamorous sales.

Jon Deeter understands why attention goes to such high-end sales, but he said, ‘‘I hate the focus on them.’’

That’s because most collectors have more modest means and ambitions.

‘‘You can find something from $500 to $1,000,’’ Deeter said.

He pointed out ‘‘300 items will sell for less than $1,000’’ at a typical auction.

‘‘There are lots and lots of people who have fun and find decoys,’’ Deeter said.

All the same, the bidding war for the Ruggles canvasback was something even for seasoned collectors. It ended up selling for more than six times its estimate.

‘‘Lot 13,’’ Deeter said. ‘‘There was a lot of interest in that decoy. Four or five were bidding to $25,000.’’

That was already double the estimate. From then on, it was Thompson and the other collector. Thompson primarily collects Illinois River decoys. Ruggles is a carver from Henry. Only a few Ruggles decoys in original paint remain.

Illinois River decoys were well-represented. A pintail decoy made by Charles Walker of Princeton was another of the world auction records for maker at $73,600. Walker made only a few pintails in his life for two members of the Princeton Gun Club, the fabled duck club on the Illinois River.

The mania went beyond Illinois. A mallard drake by New Jersey carver Harry V. Shourds sold for twice its estimate at $98,900.

Rarity, obviously, helps drive value in decoys, which are a collecting hybrid.

‘‘People come in who are outdoors people,’’ Deeter said. ‘‘Most hunt and fish, but not all. Some approach from the art and sculpture standpoint. Some people are passionate about the art form or history.’’

And decoys are a hard asset.

‘‘They can be a significant piece of somebody’s portfolio,’’ Deeter said. ‘‘They have been great over time. There was a correction in 2006, but it looks like we are working our way through that.’’

The auction at Pheasant Run certainly indicates that. It grossed $2.8 million, making it the largest decoy auction since the Guyette, Schmidt & Deeter auction in November 2007. Fifty-six lots sold for more than $10,000.

Asked whether this is a signal about the broader economy, Deeter hedged.

‘‘I think it is a signal that people are feeling better about buying decoys,’’ he said. ‘‘That is a result of people being interested. There was competitive bidding throughout the auction. That is nice.’’

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