Between 1960 and 2011, Donal O’Brien was the Rockefeller family’s attorney in New York City. He was also an avid ornithologist, and over the years passed on his passion to David. ‘The two men weren’t just business partners, but long-time friends,’ explains Margot Rosenberg, a folk art expert and Senior Director of Christie's Client Advisory in New York.
In 1985, thanks perhaps in part to O'Brien's influence, David acquired this rare working eider drake decoy at auction. Recent research has revealed that it was made by Eben Weed Eaton (1838-1888), a fisherman, lobsterman and ship’s carpenter who lived in Deer Isle in Maine — only 20 miles from David’s Mount Desert Island summer house.
‘The piece was cleverly low-bodied to float in Maine's ocean waves,’ Rosenberg explains. 'It has beautiful sinuous curves, retains gunshot holes in its wooden body, and even has a painted “6” underneath to indicate its place in the rig — all things that collectors love.
‘Duck decoys were first used by Native Americans, who made large rigs of them,’ the specialist continues. ‘They were woven from reeds and floated out on lakes to attract water fowl, which would then be hunted for food.’
By the 18th century, hunters were sculpting elaborate wooden birds in bold colours, which would fill their cotton bags as they set out across the wetlands. But with the 1918 passage of the Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which banned the hunting of more than 800 migratory species, the use of duck decoys came to a near-instant halt.
Makers began creating ornamental decoys, which, while expertly executed, remain less desirable to collectors. In 2007 Christie’s sold the world’s most expensive duck decoy, modelled on a red-breasted merganser hen, for $856,000.
‘This decoy sat on the window ledge above David’s desk, framing his views of Seal Harbor’
‘The most wonderful thing about this decoy,’ Rosenberg continues, ‘is that it wasn’t created for humans to admire, but for other ducks — the intention being to fool them into landing on the water. All the fine carving, delicate painting and screw-eye fittings show the dedication of the maker. These weren’t added for necessity, but out of love.’
Rosenberg recalls encountering the decoy, which she describes as ‘one of his dearest’, when appraising David’s collection in his Maine home.
The underside of the decoy has the number 6 painted on it, indicating its place in the rig
‘It was a typical grey, foggy Maine morning — just beautiful. David showed me his study, where he had recently finished writing his autobiography. This decoy sat on the window ledge above his desk, framing his views of Seal Harbor,’ she recollects. ‘For lunch we ate lobster caught fresh that morning and home-cooked blueberry pie, while discussing his lifetime of collecting.
‘David was always passionate and gracious. That he chose to consign this beloved duck decoy to Christie’s as part of his giving pledge shows his generosity. Just like his decoys, David was at his core a hard-working piece of Americana.’