Fish Decoy Identification

Fish Decoy IdentificationRecords on spearfishing date back to the 1700s when native Americans used painted or charred wooden decoys to lure fish to a hole in the ice so they could spear them. The spear fishermen would place a tipi covered with skins over this hole to block outside light so they could see fish moving beneath the ice. To arouse the fishes' natural curiosity they would move their decoys up and down with jigging sticks. Over 100 years later, between 1900 and 1950, skilled craftsmen ushered in a golden age of fish decoys by producing elaborate hand carved and painted designs. These are valued at $10 to many thousands of dollars today.


Difficulty: Moderately Easy

Evaluating Collectibility

Things You’ll Need:
  • Digital camera
  • Magnifying glass
  • Notebook
  • Pencil
Step 1
Look for an appealing shape. An attractive profile makes a decoy stand out from the rest. Think of it as a wood sculpture.
Step 2
Find an authentic finish. The type and condition of the paint can help to determine a decoy's age. Folk art collectors prefer finishes that are dry and scaled as this occurs naturally with aging. A decoy's patina or surface sheen is also important as the natural weathering that results from exposure to the elements adds to its authenticity.
Step 3
Choose a design that's artistically pleasing. The use of color and level of detail will vary from one decoy to the next but skilled craftsmen take pride in their work. Coveted decoys, like those from Oscar Peterson, are convincingly lifelike and distinctive.
Step 4
Make sure it's unique. The value of any collectible is largely determined by market forces. The less there are the more they're worth but when top designs are snapped up by collectors and only a few are left, the value goes up.
Step 5
Make sure it has character. A decoy has personality when it makes you smile. Fish eyes that cry or bug out, razor sharp teeth or an expression that conveys emotion are prized by collectors.

Identifying Fakes

Step 1
Avoid anything that's too perfect. If something seems too good to be true it usually is. Anyone who's good at forging decoys knows what collectors want and will put as many of these details into their work as possible. Glass eyes are one example. They look great and draw collectors but you'll rarely find them in authentic decoys.
Step 2
Avoid anything that's signed. Decoy craftsmen rarely signed their work and most of the old decoys that have signatures were signed by an owner who didn't want to lose them.
Step 3
Make sure the wear and tear looks natural. A uniform pattern of aging is always suspect. Forgers will often chemically age a decoy and bang it to make it look worn. A vintage decoy is more likely to have a broken fin or tail and some spear pricks, dents and gouges along its body.
Step 4
Think twice if the price isn't right. Good forgers can afford to offer bargains but the age and rarity of authentic decoys will usually command a higher price.
Step 5
Stay away from designs that look the same. Whenever you run across many similar designs that you haven't seen before, your guard should go up. Vintage decoys are collectible because there aren't many of them around. Forgers make their money by imitating popular designs and mass producing them.

Article Written By Dan Eash

Dan Eash began writing professionally in 1989, with articles in LaHabra's "Daily Star Progress" and the "Fullerton College Magazine." Since then, he's created scripts for doctor and dentist offices and published manuals, help files and a training video. His freelance efforts also include a book. Eash has a Fullerton College Associate of Arts in music/recording production and a Nova Institute multimedia production certificate.

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