Louisiana collectors passionate about valuable duck decoys

Hand-crafted wooden duck decoys, with their intricate carvings and painted designs, attract more than just unsuspecting ducks that mistake them for the real thing and end up getting bagged by hunters.

They also attract collectors who take their hobby seriously and who are prepared to pay big bills for the collectibles. A flock of them landed at BREC’s Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center on Saturday for the third annual Duck, Duck, Goose Day.

More than 50 vendors participated in this year’s event to celebrate Louisiana’s tradition of carving duck decoys.

The first year for the event was held in honor of Charles W. Frank, a chronicler of the folk art tradition who left some of his collection to the nature center. The focus this year was on carvers from the Bayou Lafourche area.

Duck, Duck, Goose Day has evolved into a family affair since it started, with face painting and children’s carving classes, along with displays of antique duck decoys that can be valued at thousands of dollars, said one of the event coordinators, Gary Lipham.

The idea for Duck, Duck, Goose Day came about when Lipham, a 57-year-old collector from Baton Rouge, and fellow collectors decided the tradition of carving duck decoys needed to be remembered and celebrated.

“For me, it’s all about preserving the history of this folk art,” he said.

They joined with Claire Coco, director of the Bluebonnet Swamp Nature Center, to set aside a day for people to admire the colorful, lifelike pieces and maybe start their own collection as they learn about the state’s waterfowl hunting traditions.

Another collector from Baton Rouge, Keith Catha, said he grew up with duck decoys. His father was an avid collector who left him a portion of his collection. He had an impressive spread, with one of the ducks valued at $7,500 — a decoy his dad had bought for just $33.

Catha said 40- to 50-year-old ducks that sold for less than $1 back when they were made can now sell for thousands.

One factor that makes an antique duck decoy valuable is who is doing the carving, Lipham said. Collectors pay good money for works by famous Louisiana carvers, such as Mitchell LaFrance, Mark Whipple and Reme Roussell. Catha’s $7,500 decoy was crafted by noted carver Gaston Isidore and still has the original paint on it, making it even more valuable.

But what draws Catha to the world of duck decoy collecting is not so much the value of the pieces but the fact that decoy carvers would take their time to make something beautiful that ultimately would serve humbly as a hunting tool.

“It’s just amazing that they put so much effort into ... something utilitarian,” he said.

Duck decoy carving is done throughout North America, but decoys vary by design and material, which for Louisiana is commonly cypress root or tupelo gum, Lipham said.

“You think a duck is a duck, is a duck,” he said. However, ducks vary by species, and duck decoys vary by the artist’s style and the materials used, he said.

Saturday’s event boasted two experienced carvers from New Orleans, Cal Kingsmill, 66, and Eric Hutchison, 57, who demonstrated their carving techniques to curious families passing by.

Kingsmill and Hutchison both said they believe it is important to share the craft with others to stop the fading folk art from dying out.

“It’s carrying on a tradition,” said Hutchison, who learned the craft from his father and uncle.

Kingsmill taught duck decoy carving at the Audubon Louisiana Nature Center before Hurricane Katrina destroyed it, and Hutchison used to visit schools to teach the craft. They would start children off with soaps and a plastic spoons, hoping to spark their interest and keep the heritage alive.

They seemed to be doing a good job sparking interest at the Baton Rouge nature center, attracting a crowd that peppered them with questions and watched attentively as they shaved the blocks of wood.

“The main thing is to keep it going,” Kingsmill said.