Dick McIntyre, owner of Collectable Old Decoys, has incredible recall. We're sitting in his Seabrook home, on Huspa Creek, surrounded by duck decoys. They sit on the mantle, they hang from the walls, they perch, perfectly still, at our feet.
"I've collected decoys since 1966, when I was in high school," says McIntyre. "I sold men's clothes after school at Shines Department Store in downtown Beaufort. An old man would come in and he gave me factory decoys. They weren't worth anything then and they aren't worth anything now, but I thought they were cool. That's what got me started."
These days, McIntyre deals with decoys that are a lot more valuable than those factory made models. "What makes them collectable is their sculptural quality," says McIntyre of the decoys in his living room, his basement, his attic. He points to a bird on the mantle, fairly small and unassuming. "That was probably made in the 1870s. Relief carved wings and eyes. Everyone who collects East Coast decoys could look across the parking lot at Walmart and tell you what it was."
McIntyre didn't always have a knack for what made a valuable decoy. He started off in the business like anyone else — throwing shit at the wall and seeing what stuck. "A friend of ours, Bill Richardson, his brother Bobby wrote one of the first books on decoys," says McIntyre. "Bill invited us to come up to Maryland to go goose hunting. We went to Bobby's decoy pile in the woods. It was the size of this living room, six feet high. Termites had eaten most of them. But he set us up in the decoy business, told us to pick what we wanted." So McIntyre, who was an S.C. state game warden bringing in $6K a year, joined a couple friends in filling the back of a truck with decoys, which they bought for three bucks a pop.
McIntyre took those first decoys — the decent looking ones at least — to Ducks Unlimited dinners, where he sold the three dollar ducks for $15, the $20 ducks for $50. "DU made a fat pile of money and at the end of the night they'd pay me," he says.
"In 1978, I ran an ad to sell decoys in Ducks Unlimited Magazine," says McIntyre. "At the time I probably had 50 old decoys. I didn't know who made them, but I knew what kinda ducks they were and where they came from — for the most part. In the ad I said, 'If you send me a dollar I'll send you a list of the decoys." Give or take a couple days and Port Royal's mailman drives up to McIntyre's house, honking his horn. "He's got two trays of letters, each one has got a dollar in it. There's 300 in there. Hell, I didn't even have 300 decoys," he says. Needless to say, McIntyre learned that there was a market for decoys, and he was all in.
McIntyre talks about traveling up and down the East Coast, stopping in the Outer Banks of North Carolina — "they don't throw anything away" — and buying over 1,200 decoys from a huge barn. He and his friends couldn't fit all the decoys in the back of their U-Haul, so they did what anyone does in that situation — wait for low tide. "We had to wait for the tide to get low on the Cedar Island boat ramp, and we drove the truck and slammed on the brakes going down the landing, so all the ducks went to the front," says McIntyre. Then they stuffed in the rest.
"That was our first major purchase," says McIntyre of the U-Haul full of ducks. "I was selling them through the mail and through DU dinners. There were local people who would come to my house — we had a 900-square-foot house and it was full of decoys. I had these paper drums filled with decoys, in the hallway, in the kids' bedrooms." McIntyre says that while he was collecting tons of decoys he was also educating himself: "I read everything I could find."
McIntyre assures me that the birds that surround us are for decorative purposes only. "No one takes old antique decoys hunting. There are a group of young fellows who make decoys in the same manner as old decoys. But most people today, you look at all the decoys in the boats, and 99 percent are plastic," he says.
So most people heading to SEWE's decoy auctions and exhibits likely fall under one of two categories: "Fifty percent of people who collect decoys today are from a hunting background, they have a sporting attachment to these things" and then, there are those who collect for collecting's sake. "Before he got to be a pariah, I sold a lot of decoys to Bill Cosby," says McIntyre. "He collected decoys by African-American carvers."
"Not all decoys are valuable, they're kind of like American paintings," says McIntyre. "There were literally tens of thousands of people who made decoys and most made them to lure birds for shooting." He points to a blue heron decoy, a swan. These aren't just pieces of house decor — these birds were originally carved to lure fowl of the same flock.
"What people don't understand is that if your great great grandparents lived in this country, they ate these things," says McIntyre of the beautiful birds we'd never dare consume today. "I have an illustration from Fulton Market in New York City, dated 1873. There's a bear hanging from the rafters, all kinds of swans and ducks and rabbits, and there's an elderly couple and they're standing over a table with a dozen great blue herons on it, deciding what to purchase for dinner."
McIntyre is full of these tidbits, proof positive that in the past five decades he's done more than just a little reading about the history of decoys. "That's why they ate these things," says McIntyre, "If you weren't wealthy enough to have cattle or hogs, you went to the market and bought what was for sale, and it was wild game. That's why they made these decoys."
McIntyre recalls a conversation with an old man on the Eastern Shore of Virginia, one that he often brings up to talk about the utility of decoys. "He told me, 'You know what the differece between an intellectual and a cannibal is, don't ya? Three days with nothin' to eat.'"