There are many given names for folk art fish decoys that were fabricated to look vintage and sold as such. I like telling everyone they should be called ‘people decoys’ because they were made to fool people and not the fish. Not to long ago, while visiting one of the local antique malls in my area, I came across a fish decoy marked as vintage from the 1940’s. The first thing I noticed on the decoy was it was missing one of its pectoral fins. The vendor wrote on a tag that the missing fin was an old battle scare from its years of use. I picked up the decoy with curiosity and looked closely at the slot that was cut into the wood where the fin once was affixed. I knew most vintage pectoral fins were cut from a single piece of metal and would pass completely through the fish’s body. Because of this, I expected to see a portion of the serrated metal where the fin should have broken off just inside the wood body. But, there was no sign of any metal what so ever.
When I visit antique stores I always carry a lighted 10X magnifying loupe in my pocket . With my loupe in hand I began to study the cut slot in the wood for clues on how the fin once was secured. I thought for certain it would have been by the lead poured cavity or possibly a nail but immediately I noticed a clear indication of dried up glue. Moving my loupe to the decoy’s paint that looked timeworn to the naked eye, I focused on several worn areas. Using the loupe, I could see that the worn areas betrayed obvious simulated wear. This wear had all the signs of being made with sandpaper and not genuine age. As a final assessment to the decoys true age, I took a white paper towel and with light pressure wiped down the decoy’s oxidized metal fins, tack eyes, and the line tie. Not to my surprise, the corrosion came off easily and the towel showed clear signs of the contemporary reddish brown rust. In the last thirty years, I’ve studied countless antique advertising tins and their various conditions. One of the significant things I learned was authentic aged old rust is not reddish brown but more of a dark brown to black. And aged old rust will not wipe off as easily as recent rust. But, be aware of dubious people who stain recent rust a darker color and then spray it with a clear flat sealer to give the indication of old rust.
Also, one should always be aware of those same people who like to dab Vaseline or such on the metal fins before painting them. The Vaseline will cause the paint to bubble, giving the metal an effect of old rust forming under the paint. And, to anyone who tells you, blistered paint is never a sign of an old paint job, never worked on old cars. Another trick devious people like to employ, is painting over aged old rusted metal for an antique look.
While on the subject of painting, most vintage decoys were painted with a brush and a oil base paint. Most modern decoys are painted with a brush and a water base paint or with a can of spray paint. With a little practice using a 10X magnifying loupe, you can distinguish the variations of each paint variety. Just keep in mind, brushed on water base paints dry much more rapidly than oil base paints and the paint will not have the time to smooth out as well as oil base paints do. Spray paint of course, will be smooth and have no brush marks.
It isn’t always easy to distinguish authentic old decoys from recent high-quality fake ones when you’re standing in an antique store but there is a way. I also always bring a portable long wave black light and most of the reputable antique dealers, will let you use their black light to examine their merchandise. It might sound like a lot of effort for a low-priced fish decoy but, if you’re looking at a potential Ernest Aamodt or Leroy Howell just to mention two of the greats, a few minutes of time before laying down your hard earned cash, can save you money and a lifetime of regrets. Magnifying loupes and portable handheld black lights are reasonably inexpensive to purchase and well worth the money for the serious collector.
If you learn how to use a black light to its fullest, you’ll be able distinguish recent paint from old paint and even old paint that has been touched up. You will also be able to see if fins have been glued on, hairline cracks or simulated aged rust from authentic aged rust, all items which would not be noticeable to the naked eye. I tell people, what the black light won’t see, experience and a 10X loupe will. I spend as much time studying fake vintage decoys as genuine vintage decoys. I found the best way to tell a genuine folk art vintage fish decoy is by knowing all the tricks to a really good fake. But keep in mind, a good decoy detective looks at all the clues and evidence before making a final decision.
Years ago I was given a vintage folk art fish decoy that was correct in every way but one, the lead belly weight was just too shiny for old lead. At the time, I couldn’t figure out what was amiss with the decoy and that’s because, the decoy was correct. I couldn’t perceive what was acceptable for old folk art decoys but learned that scores of folk art decoys were made by necessity and many people would use whatever they had on hand to make their decoys. After a year of owning the decoy, the lead never got dull and milky looking. That’s when I finally realized the maker of the decoy used 60/40 wiping lead (60% tin 40% lead). While it seems kind of rare to find a decoy with this type of lead and tin mixture, wiping lead was quite common for many years. To date I now have 3 vintage decoys that are weighted with 60/40. So, while you should be weary of shiny new looking lead on vintage fish decoys, just keep in mind, it just might be 60/40 which is brighter looking than lead because of the tin content. You’ll find that 60/40 is much more rigid or solidified than lead and doesn’t scratch as easily as lead if you go to test it. So remember, when it comes to folk art fish decoys, there are basic rules but, even those can be broken.
by & submitted by
John A. Gabriel