IPSWICH, Mass. — If you’ve got birds in the attic, you just might have treasure.
These birds, however, are decoys, fashioned up to 100 years ago by people like English immigrant John Thomas Wilson, a man who made his living hunting shorebirds and making wooden decoys in the Ipswich area.
Just days ago, one of Wilson’s decoys, the sculpture of an upright willet, barely a foot tall, sold at auction for $34,500.
It was one of four Wilson decoys uncovered from a family in Minneapolis in 2007. Another of their birds previously sold at auction for $220,000.
They weren’t considered art when Wilson made the decoys, some for himself and some for sale. He was a working man, a machinist who arrived in the United States in the 1880s and grew dependent on the meat he could hunt and the decoys he could sell.
“They were meant to attract other birds so you could shoot them and eat them,” said Ted Harmon of Decoys Unlimited Inc. “They were made to sit up in the mud on sticks.”
Over time, however, creators developed a “pride of craft.” In the hands of people like Wilson, forms verged into something more.
“They’re just incredibly sculpted,” Harmon said.
Today, such decoys are considered folk art, according to Jane Winchell, the Sarah Fraser Robbins director of the Art & Nature Center at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Mass.
Harmon places Wilson’s work among the top five on the market. “He is one of the finest decoy makers of shorebirds.”
Before the interest in antique decoys developed, Harmon said, some owners were known to use them for kindling.