Whistling Swan, John Haynes Williams, Cedar Island, Virginia, circa 1910, 25 in (63.5 cm) long. Sold for $385,500 on 11 May 2018 in The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller Travel and Americana

‘My highlight of 2018’ — A Whistling Swan decoy

Christie’s Deputy Chairman John Hays brought the gavel down on this curious artefact at 3am on 11 May in the last sale of The Peggy and David Rockefeller Collection. The rare, wooden decoy swan was sold for more three times its low estimate

When Christie’s Deputy Chairman John Hays arrived at the podium for the final sale of The Collection of Peggy and David Rockefeller, he wished everyone a good morning. 

‘The bidding had been intense and tension so high that the day auction had overrun, and it was now well past midnight,’ he recalls. Some of the final lots were David Rockefeller’s collection of hunting decoys. ‘Those buyers get the highest marks for perseverance,’ Hays says. ‘It was three in the morning when I sold the Whistling Swan.’ The lot realised $348,500, three times its low estimate. ‘It was because of its rarity’, explains the specialist. ‘Usually decoys were designed to look like ducks.’

Rockefeller had bought the swan in the 1970s at an auction of the collection of William Mackey (1902-1972), who wrote the book American Bird Decoys. What buyers like, says Hays, is ‘the primitive and workaday aspect to them. Out of the water they are incredibly awkward, top-heavy and they just roll around. But in the water, they are weighted so that they float perfectly.’

‘The decoys represent the reason why people first came here — for the natural resources. It was this amazing new world of discovery and of new species’ — John Hays

The swan was made by the well-known Virginian carver John Haynes Williams (1857-1937) around 1910, and Hays believes it was used as a confidence decoy to lure other fowl into the water. ‘Hunters rarely shot swans, except for a very brief period when swan feathers were fashionable in hats. They were certainly never killed for eating.’

Embedded in the neck and body are buckshot, which makes it particularly valuable. ‘Collectors love that because it means the decoy was carved before 1918, when a ban on hunting migratory birds came into effect,’ the specialist explains.

The appreciation of duck decoys as collector’s items began in the mid-20th century, with the rise in popularity of American folk art. These vintage decoys were seen as sculptural, and an intrinsic part of the nation’s history. ‘It is important that they were once utilitarian objects,’ says Hays. ‘American collectors are passionate about their history — collecting is a patriotic act to them — and they also tend to be naturalists. Certainly that was the case with David Rockefeller.’

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To Hays, these objects are a metaphor for the America dream. ‘They represent the reason why people first came here — for the natural resources,’ he explains. ‘It was this amazing new world of discovery and of new species.

‘I think that is what David Rockefeller loved about them. When he got ill in his nineties, he had his entire collection about him. I don’t believe he valued them any differently to his French Impressionist paintings.’