Collecting Mason Decoys
This article is excerpted from Mason Decoys, A Complete Pictorial Guide--Expanded Edition by Russ J. Goldberger and Alan G. Haid.
In the early 1900s the Mason Decoy Factory (1896-1924) of Detroit, Michigan, advertised themselves as the "Largest Manufacturers Of High Grade Decoys In The World!" Founder William James Mason (mid-1800s-1905) and his successors would be pleased to learn that their quest for quality is still recognized in today's marketplace. The then record price--$354,500--for a factory decoy was set by a Mason Premier wood duck drake (Fig. 1) in January 2000. This is ten times more than current prices realized for any other factory decoy, and substantially more than its original selling price of $1.
Figure 1. Mason Premier Grade wood duck drake, ca. 1905, sold at auction in 2000 for $354,500, an auction record for a Mason decoy and the sixth highest price ever paid for any waterfowl decoy at auction. This decoy subsequently sold for $690,000 in an April, 2014 auction.
Mason's son, Herbert, joined the company. It was at this point that the company became a nationwide commercial operation. Lathes, band saws, and sanders were installed, and skilled painters, most likely from the defunct Peterson and Dodge factories, were hired. Herbert increasingly ran the company, using his father's decoy carving and paint patterns. With the passing of his father in 1905, Herbert proved to be an astute businessman and increased profits through advertising.
A Price List, circa 1905
|Premier model, hollow
$12.00 per doz.
|Challenge model, hollow
$8.00 per doz.
|Challenge model, solid
$6.50 per doz.
$5.50 per doz.
$4.75 per doz.
$4.00 per doz.
|Glasseye Snipe Shorebirds
$5.00 per doz.
|Tackeye Snipe Shorebirds
$3.75 per doz.
Figure 2. Mason Decoy Price List, ca. 1905.
Herbert Mason also sought to expand the company by broadening its market share. He did this by adding a less expensive "Standard Grade" decoy model to the existing Premier and Challenge Grades. Unlike the original models, this grade had three price levels determined by the decoy's eyes: glass, tack, or painted (Fig. 2). The Mason Company offered a wide variety in all grades of ducks and shorebirds as well as geese, brant, crows, doves, and swans, only discontinuing its line of shorebird decoys when the hunting of shorebirds was outlawed by the Federal Migratory Waterfowl Act of 1918.
While the decoy business prospered, it remained seasonal. In 1919, Herbert Mason and a friend formed the Rinshed-Mason Company and became the largest paint supplier to the growing automotive industry. (The company survives today as BASF's Inmont Division's R-M high quality line of automotive paints.)
With this venture becoming more profitable, Herbert sold the decoy business to the Pratt Company of Joliet, Illinois, in 1924. They continued the business until 1939, when owner William E. Pratt died and the company was sold to the Animal Trap Decoy Company of Lititz, Pennsylvania, who continued production until the 1960s.
Masons Grading System
Figure 3. Mason Premier blue-winged teal drake, ca. 1905.
Mason's Premiers were the highest grade decoy offered by the company (Fig. 3). They are characterized by a carved notch on the top of the bill and scored outlines that separate the bill from the face, and by a "nail" incised on the end of the bill. Premiers are generally flat-bottomed, which means they rock to a lesser extent when in the water than do round-bottomed decoys, thus offering a more realistic representation of the action of live ducks. To make them lightweight for transporting, most Premiers were hollow.
Mason assigned its best painters to its Premiers, resulting in natural looking intricate details and colors appropriate to specific species. The decorators were taught to apply their paint in circular swirls to simulate the iridescence of feathers.
Figure 4. Mason Challenge bufflehead drake, ca. 1910.
Mason's next best offering was its Challenge Grade (Fig. 4). Similar in style to the Premiers, these decoys tend to be a bit smaller, generally solid bodied, with a smooth face and bill (no notch). The "nail" on the end of the bill is painted, not incised. Challenge decoys are mostly round-bottomed. Paint patterns remain fancy, but there is less blending and more blocks of solid colors.
Figure 5a. Mason Standard Grade Glasseye blue-winged and green-winged teal pairs, ca. 1910. Mint original condition.
Figure 5b. Mason Standard Grade Tackeye canvasback hen, ca. 1915, in mint condition.
After 1905, Mason began to offer its least expensive and most popular line--its Standard Grade (Figs. 5a-c). This grade was available in three varieties characterized by the differences in their eyes. Sold by mail order companies like Sears and Roebuck, these decoys are almost always solid. Bodies were turned on a lathe with little carving detail, and where head and body did not meet, neck putty was added and painted over to match. No bill delineation was used beyond contrasting paint patterns. Standards were round-bottomed; Glasseye and Tackeye models were fatter and more elaborately painted than Painted Eyes.
Figure 5c. Mason Standard Grade Painted Eye blue-winged teal hen, ca. 1910, sold for $13,800 at auction in 2000.
A Collector’s Guide to Value and Restoration
A Mason decoy’s value is determined by its rarity weighed against its degree of originality. While collectors should strive to purchase decoys in the best original condition they can afford, remember that these were tools designed to lure waterfowl to hunters, and thus suffered wear and damage and were frequently repainted (Fig. 6).
Figure 6. Mason Standard Grade Glasseye mallard drake, ca. 1910, with neck putty missing (left) and after professional restoration (right).
Masons in the best original condition have proven the best values. A Mason that has been repainted is worth significantly less than one with its original paint, even if worn.
Mason Premiers are usually worth a bit more than Challenges, while Challenges are worth more than Standard Grades. Within Standards, Glasseyes are worth more than Tackeyes and Tackeyes more than Painted Eyes. However, a scarcity of certain Painted Eyes can make them worth more than comparable Tackeyes and Glasseyes.
Some professional restoration is acceptable and perhaps preferable to most collectors as long as the seller has made it known prior to purchase. A decoy with a tail chip or missing neck filler, but in otherwise original condition, can be restored to its original appearance by competent professionals. Most of today’s collectors prefer this approach.
Figure 7. Mason Premier Grade goldeneye drake, ca. 1920. Hollow, in nearly mint original condition.
Why Collect Masons?
For those who may shy away from a factory connotation, here are five good reasons to collect Masons:
Quality — Most collectors believe that Mason decoys are every bit as collectible as handmade decoys. In fact, the factory connotation is unfair. Though more people were involved in their production, Masons were largely made by hand. Their hand-painted detail can rival that of the best decoys by individual makers (Fig. 7).
Availability — More Masons were made than any other decoy. Therefore, collectors have a much better chance of finding a really good example.
Affordability — Greater availability reduces rarity and in turn helps to hold down prices. Masons are still one of the best buys in decoys. Very few decoys by other classic makers can be purchased for comparable amounts.
Saleability — There are more Mason collectors than any other kind of decoy collector. Therefore there will always be collectors buying and selling to upgrade, resulting in a fluid market.
Value — Because of their wide appeal, Masons have steadily increased in value, whereas prices for many other makers, while growing, have continually fluctuated.
Reprinted with permission from the Summer 2003 issue of The Catalogue of Antiques & Fine Art.