Before decoys were considered art pieces, early collectors would go door to door in coastal regions, acquiring handmade ducks, geese, and shorebirds directly from hunters and carvers. The late Donal C. O’Brien, Jr.—the longtime chairman of the National Audubon Society and a hunter and amateur carver himself—was one of those early fans of the tradition, amassing over the decades more than 500 rare decoys, paintings, and other sporting art. For the first time, more than 150 of his treasures will cross the auction block at Copley’s Sporting Sale, July 27–28, in Plymouth, Massachusetts, at what Copley calls the most important decoy auction in nearly twenty years. “Knowing they will find new homes is a little bit bittersweet,” says Stephen B. O’Brien, Jr., Copley’s CEO and Donal O’Brien, Jr.’s nephew. “My uncle lived with his collection displayed in every room throughout his family home.”
Donal O’Brien, Jr., once wrote, “If I were to pick a pair of decoys to illustrate the art of decoy making, I would pick the Ward Brothers 1936 canvasbacks,” a Crisfield, Maryland–made pair that are expected to sell for upwards of $20,000 each. Other standout items include a wood duck drake that is considered among the best ever made of that species, an Italian long-billed curlew that Ernest Hemingway likely shot over, and an assortment of rare fish decoys. The collection will go on sale beginning this Thursday (July 27) at 1 p.m., followed by the rest of the Sporting Sale on Friday, which includes work from contemporary artists such as Mark McNair of Craddockville, Virginia. Absentee and online bidding are available. In the meantime, we’ve assembled a gallery of highlights from the rare collection. Even if you’re not looking to buy, the pieces are a beautiful testament to a love of the craft.