A rare, century-old duck decoy carved by South Portland lighthouse keeper Augustus “Gus” Wilson fetched $125,000 at a recent Christie’s auction in New York.

Other Wilson decoys have captured higher prices, but the sale to an unidentified private collector reaffirms the value attached to Wilson’s handmade creations, considered fine works of art today, according to experts in American folk art.

Christie’s auction house described the wooden decoy as “an extremely rare ‘Monhegan Island’ style, red-breasted merganser drake” that has some shot marks from when it was used by hunters to lure ducks to Maine ponds.

The decoy is believed to be an early carving by Wilson and was probably created about 1900, according to Christie’s. The auction house declined to identify the buyer or seller of the decoy. Both are private collectors.

Wilson created some 5,000 decoys in his lifetime. He used a pen knife to whittle most of them while a keeper at the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse in South Portland from 1918-34. The decoy sold at the Christie’s auction predates Wilson’s tenure as the South Portland lighthouse keeper.

Wilson, who lived from 1864-1950, is among the best-known lighthouse keepers in New England, largely for the decoys he carved from scrap wood. The Maine State Museum has six Wilson decoys in its collection, including two later examples of merganser ducks. The museum also has three eiders and one black duck decoy produced by Wilson.

“He typically based his decoys on his own observations of ducks near his lighthouse, observations and carvings he made while working,” said Kate McBrien, a curator of historic collections at the Maine State Museum in Augusta.

“The merganser duck, such as the decoy sold at the recent Christie’s auction, can be commonly found in Maine,” she noted.

Wilson’s decoys are known for their fine detail, “much more detail than is necessary in a working decoy,” she said. “The unusual detail of the bill and wing contours are typical of Gus Wilson, as well as raised wings.”

Although Wilson also was a keeper of lighthouses in Cape Elizabeth and Goose Rocks, he is most closely associated with the Spring Point Ledge Lighthouse, which is still in operation today. The caisson-style lighthouse is located near the campus of Southern Maine Community College.

Wilson started at the lighthouse as an assistant keeper. He eventually oversaw operations at the structure, which is near the entrance to Portland Harbor.

Wilson’s family lived in South Portland, and Wilson drove a Model T when he visited with them during his time off, according to Rusty Nelson, a trustee and former board chairman for Spring Point Ledge Light Trust.

He noted that Wilson used found objects – scrap pieces of wood – to whittle his creations. Wilson carved his initials on the bottom of most of his decoys.

Nelson said the Wilson decoys often show the ducks with heads turned, as if they were preening themselves. “They’re not just looking straight ahead,” Nelson said.

When Wilson worked at Spring Point, he was expected to run the light, sound the fog horn and do general maintenance work. The lighthouse was called a “stag” lighthouse because there were no quarters for the keeper’s families.

“When he had the money, he would go ashore and buy three pen knives at a time to make his decoys,” Nelson said. “Sometimes (the decoys) were small and odd-shaped because they were made from scrap wood that Gus happened to find at the time. Or he would glue two pieces of wood together.

“He was extremely good at what he did. There was a great amount of detail in the ducks he made,” Nelson added.

Nelson noted that working as a lighthouse keeper was a tough job. Spring Point Ledge could be accessed only by boat at the time, because the breakwater had yet to be built.

The keepers had to row ashore to see their families and get provisions. But there also was a lot of down time, which Wilson used to carve his decoys.

Christie’s described the decoy as “purchased from a fish shack in Cape Porpoise in the early 1980s.” Bidding opened at $55,000.

The 16-inch decoy has a carved crest and eyes, relief-carved wings, and a slightly turned head. The neck exhibits a “serpentine” shape.

The Christie’s Web site notes that the “decoy has its original paint, though an early owner added small tack eyes and a thin coat of black paint to the underside … Some light shot marks are evident. Overall the structural condition is excellent.”

Wilson lived his entire life in Maine. Born in Tremont, he worked as a fisherman and boat builder before becoming a lighthouse keeper at the age of 50.

He started at Spring Point Ledge Light in 1918 as an assistant and was in charge until 1934, when he retired. It was the year the lighthouse switched to electricity.

Wilson is considered one among New England’s most accomplished carvers of wooden bird decoys. In addition to ducks, he also carved songbirds. Small carvings he made of two circus tigers are held by a museum in Brooklyn.

Hand-carved wood decoys were once used by hunters to lure birds. Along with weather vanes and handmade fishing lures, the best examples that remain are highly collectible folk art today.

(duck decoy by S.Portland guy sells for $125,000)


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