Donal O’Brien collected his fi rst decoy as a child, more than 60 years ago.
NEW YORK - Donal O’Brien acquired his first duck decoy, a female broadbill, when he was just 10 years old, though he didn’t exactly buy it. “I cut the duck out of my grandfather’s rig,” he confesses, referring to a tethered set of wood-carved fowl used for hunting, “and put it in my bedroom.”
He was instantly hooked. As a teen he’d pay $5 or $10 for decoys in Nantucket; now they’d sell for $5,000. (Very top examples go for several hundred thousand dollars.) As he grew into adulthood and as a lawyer at a major New York City firm, he continued to build the collection. Over the years, O’Brien, now 78, amassed some 2,000 decoys, with a focus on those made from around the time of the American Civil War up until the 1930s, before manufactured plastic versions replaced traditional hand-carving. An indigenous American art form, decoys predate white man’s arrival on the continent; archaeologists have identified Native American examples dating back a thousand years.
For O’Brien, his intense pursuit of decoys dovetailed with his other extracurricular passions: hunting and wildlife conservation. O’Brien, who spent his early childhood on Long Island and has since lived in Connecticut, hails from a family of hunters. “I was very influenced by my relatives,” he says.
His paternal grandparents were both accomplished hunters and fishermen — his grandmother wore dresses while stalking deer and once nabbed the Adirondacks’ largest buck of the year — as were their nine children. O’Brien followed their example, becoming a serious sportsman. He set his own decoys, trained his own Labrador Retrievers, and studied both the winds and the ducks’ flight patterns on his beloved Nantucket.
His appreciation of nature led him to become a devout conservationist; he served on the board of the National Audubon Society for 25 years, including 15 as chairman. His list of environment-related board memberships and honours is lengthy. “I love animals, and I try to save them all,” O’Brien explains, citing elephants, turtles and shore birds as some of his favourites. “I’m engaged in conservation for these beautiful creatures.”
O’Brien’s collection, which is displayed throughout his home, was inspired by his appreciation of nature and beauty.
His fascination with waterfowl inspired him to carve his own decoys. Self-taught, he twice won the U.S. National Amateur Championship. “I had no training at all,” he says, “but I recognised great decoys when I saw them and used them as models.”
A top-notch decoy, as O’Brien sees it, bears a strong likeness to the living species and is “self-righting,” meaning that when the hunter throws the decoy in the water, it bobs with its head upright, not upside down. “That is difficult,” he says. “I make all my decoys hollow and put weights on the bottoms.”
Some of his acquisitions, though, were made for aesthetics alone. An avid fan of Lem and Steve Ward, brothers and barbers by trade from the Chesapeake Bay known for their remarkably lifelike birds, O’Brien says he is happy to overlook the fact that their decoys would not float well. “I like them because they’re so beautiful,” O’Brien explains matter-of-factly.
On the other hand, he is open to objects even if they’re not in perfect condition: “I don’t care if they are beat up.” Indeed, decoys are that rare collectible for which, while condition of course plays a prime role in the market, authentic functionality also counts. Hence the occasional telltale signs of shotgun blast. Several years ago O’Brien sold about a thousand decoys, or half of his collection — though not his grandfather’s broadbill — to fund the newest o" -shoot of his wildlife passion: Audubon prints. “I like beautiful things,” he says simply.
Julie L. Belcove writes about art and culture. Her work has appeared in the New Yorker, Architectural Digest, Elle, Town & Country and the Financial Times, amongst other publications.
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