Sleuthing the Origins of Five Controversial Decoys at the Shelburne Museum | Visual Art | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Sleuthing the Origins of Five Controversial Decoys at the Shelburne Museum

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Dowitcher and yellowlegs shorebird stick-up decoys, circa 1890-1900, by Charles Sumner Bunn - COURTESY OF SHELBURNE MUSEUM
  • Courtesy Of Shelburne Museum
  • Dowitcher and yellowlegs shorebird stick-up decoys, circa 1890-1900, by Charles Sumner Bunn

The snipe, a shorebird found all over the world, is attracted to marshes and their yummy invertebrates. Long legs facilitate wading around in the muck, and a skinny, elongated bill with highly sensitive nerve endings enables the bird to detect and slurp up dinner.

This family of shorebirds also comes with handy plumage that helps camouflage it from predators. And, once airborne, the snipe tends to fly erratically, which makes it difficult for gun-toting humans to bring down. If you've ever wondered about the origin of the term "sniper," aka sharpshooter, now you know.

Human hunters found an answer to the snipe's elusiveness: decoys. Lure a bunch of birds to a site, the thinking goes, and you have a better chance of bagging at least one.

Artfully made decoys are prized by collectors. But their origins can be as elusive as the birds they depict, making their attribution a puzzle for curators.

Such is the case of the five shorebird decoys spotlighted in a new virtual exhibition from the Shelburne Museum: "In Plain Sight: Rediscovering Charles Sumner Bunn's Shorebird Decoys." For decades, the decoys were attributed to William Bowman of Maine or A. Elmer Crowell of Massachusetts, both white men. The exhibition presents the evidence that they were actually created by Bunn (1865-1952), a member of Long Island's Shinnecock-Montauk tribe. In an introduction, chief curator Kory Rogers calls the decades-long disagreement over this question "highly charged."

Recent developments in the story of the decoys' provenance involve the kind of vicious partisanship that so commonly replaces objective investigation and civic discourse these days. Implicit accusations of racism have been made and denied. Rogers has even received threats for his stance. "In Plain Sight" illustrates that the world of decoy collectors is not the mild-mannered milieu most of us might expect.

If you think you don't go for decoys, come for the opportunity to explore an engrossing curatorial rabbit hole.

Shelburne Museum owns some 1,200 decoys — ducks, geese and other fowl that populate an inanimate aviary in the Dorset House. The five stars of the current exhibition, blissfully unaware of the dissension they've caused, perch together on a shelf. Soft lighting bathes their elegant contours.

Clad for the occasion in a sweater with a colorfully embroidered duck, Rogers introduced the flock to a reporter last week.

The curator admitted that his interest in decoys is a recent one, but they became "an obsession" as he researched the creator of this shorebird quintet. "You have no idea the wormholes I went down," he said.

That research began with a query a year ago on Rogers' decoy-centric Instagram account. It relied in part on the investigations of James Reason and Joseph Jannsen, which have been documented in Decoy Magazine and elsewhere. A webinar with the pair, recorded earlier this month, can be streamed on the museum's website.

To corroborate Reason and Jannsen's compelling evidence, Rogers said, he did his own searches through periodicals and genealogical and legal records. The museum analyzed paint samples from the birds to narrow down the period in which they could have been made.

Many decoy carvers did not sign their work, frustrating the efforts of future historians. "They were considered tools, not works of art," Rogers explained. What's more, purchasers often branded or wrote their names on the decoys to facilitate claiming them after a hunt.

In the webinar, Reason and Jannsen share what they've learned about the carvers of the decoys in question. Their source materials include period photos, newspaper articles, other print ephemera, and an oral history from Bunn's daughter, Alice Bunn Martinez, which was recorded and published in a book by her grandson, David Bunn Martine.

Charles Sumner Bunn "lived a long and well-documented life," the exhibition intro reads. "He was born, raised, married, reared his children and died on the Shinnecock Indian Reservation located within the boundaries of Southampton, New York."

Bunn lost his father when he was just 11, and his paternal grandfather taught him to hunt and fish. He would later put those skills to use as a professional guide for sportsmen from New York City who summered in the Hamptons.

By that time, Bunn had earned a college degree in education, briefly taught school and farmed land on the reservation. But his many years as a hunting guide are more germane to the decoy saga. Among the documents that Reason and Jannsen present is one of Bunn's business cards, which states that his services as a hunting guide include providing decoys.

A photograph shows Bunn sitting in his booth at the 1906 National Sportsmen's Show in Madison Square Garden. He is clearly selling decoys. Rogers pointed out that an enlargement of the photo verifies that those birds match the qualities of the ones in the museum's collection today: inletted head; upswept tail; a realistic, rounded breast; and carved articulation of the feathers.

"These are some of the most beautifully carved birds in our collection," Rogers said of Bunn's work. "He really knew bird anatomy."

Why were the shorebird decoys most recently attributed to Bowman — and earlier to Crowell? The story of mistaken identity is long and convoluted.

Kory Rogers with a shorebird carved by Charles Sumner Bunn - COURTESY OF KATE OWEN
  • Courtesy Of Kate Owen
  • Kory Rogers with a shorebird carved by Charles Sumner Bunn

Empirical evidence for Bowman (1824-1906) as a carver is skimpy — Rogers flatly called it "nothing" and even "shady." A millman from Bangor, Maine, Bowman was known to hunt on Long Island. A sportsman's diary from the time mentions hunting with Bowman but nothing about his making decoys. So where did his decoy reputation come from?

In the mid-1960s, the respected decoy collector, expert and author William Mackey came across the collection of a Long Island family who credited a previously unknown carver named Bowman. Mackey eventually concluded that the decoys now at the Shelburne Museum were also Bowman's work. But even he, in an article for the Decoy Collector's Guide 1966-67 Annual, described Bowman as someone who was friendly but lazy, prone to drinking bouts, and who carved decoys only to earn money for "supplies and a full jug."

For decades before he "discovered" Bowman, Mackey had attributed those same decoys to Massachusetts carver Crowell (1862-1952). This incorrect attribution began with Joel Barber's 1934 Wild Fowl Decoys. The book included a photograph and a watercolor illustration of a yellowlegs shorebird decoy that Barber declared "a full expression of the American fowler's art."

Barber's own collection of decoys ended up at Shelburne Museum when it was purchased by descendants of museum founder Electra Havemeyer Webb. Three of the five decoys in "In Plain Sight" are from the 1952 Barber acquisition, Rogers said. The other two came from separate donors.

The confusion between Crowell and Bunn was more logical than the one between Bowman and Bunn, Rogers said. Both carvers were skilled in accurately reproducing the birds' physiques. (The Shelburne Museum has a Crowell collection, too; a virtual exhibition of his work is on view through October 31.)

Verifying provenance is a normal and necessary part of art collection. Once the attribution is considered settled, however, reattribution is "a laborious process," Rogers said. Challenging the status quo might lead to an object's devaluation.

Perhaps that's why more than one disgruntled collector, unhappy with Rogers' decision to attribute the decoys to Bunn, has threatened to jeopardize his job, an endowed position at the museum, he said. So far, the threats have not panned out.

Resistance to long-held beliefs about an artwork's attribution can also result from the desire to be right or, more insidiously, from prejudicial beliefs. Without naming names, Rogers quoted a widely held opinion that Bunn's carvings "don't look Indian." He added, "People may have a hard time believing a Native [American] carved them."

But Rogers believes that the reattribution of the carvings to Bunn should actually make them more valuable. They are rare examples of his art, and the craftsmanship is excellent.

"The amount of trouble [he went] to for a work of art that you're probably just going to blow the head off," Rogers said with a laugh.

Despite the blowback, Rogers said he's managed to change a few minds about Bunn. He readily acknowledged that, despite all the research, Bowman can't be ruled out definitively as the artist. But examining all sides and weighing the existing facts led him to the verdict voiced in the exhibition's intro: "Shelburne Museum has concluded the evidence supports the reattribution of its three dowitchers and two yellowlegs to Charles Sumner Bunn."

"In Plain Sight: Rediscovering Charles Sumner Bunn's Shorebird Decoys," on view through October 5, 2022, at shelburnemuseum.org.

The original print version of this article was headlined "What the Actual Flock"

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