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Solving the mystery of the duck decoy Polaroids

April 5, 2017

In 2007, two wooden duck decoys—a pintail drake and a Canada goose—both by the late Cape Cod carver A. Elmer Crowell, sold in the United States for a record USD$1.13 million.

This Crowell fellow, we are told, by Forbes magazine, was the “Cezanne in the field of waterfowl carving”—Cezanne being the best that collectors of wooden waterfowl can hope for apparently, what with Outdoor Life declaring the year of the record sale that “the Mona Lisa of duck decoys is yet to be discovered.”

Anyway, whether any of us knew it or not, collecting old wooden duck decoys is an actual thing and a big thing at that.

Which brings me to the vintage Polaroid photographs of duck decoys which someone has been leaving on my bike trailer for the last few weeks.

Remnants of the “definitive” collection of wooden ducks?

On a rain-filled day that had “waterfowl” written all over it (April 4), I finally wrung a confession out of the person I suspected of depositing the duck decoy snaps on my bike trailer.

It was my homeless peer and friend the Green Guy.

He told me that he’d found all of the Polaroids in one back alley location, somewhere in the Fairview neighbourhood and sometime in early December of 2016. And he hadn’t just found a few Polaroids either but binders and binders filled with them.

He only kept about a binder’s-worth and, after his artful fashion, had been tucking them here and there ever since.

Shaking him down gave me a total of 12 Polaroids with a promise of pages more. The 12 were certainly enough to hint at the seriousness of the collection they documented.

There is handwriting on each Polaroid—two codes in red across the top and a description in black along the bottom.

Thus, one of the Polaroids is annotated across the top with “GYM-96” on the left and “WC-1” on the right. The description along the bottom reads:

“William Clarke / Hollow Hen. Red head c 1925 / [illegible] Way, Ont / Branded. W. Clarke”.

The “GYM-96” is on the top left of each of the Polaroids and perhaps refers to the date of the record. The “WC-1” on the top right clearly refers to the maker William Clarke. And the illegible part of the description accords to Ashbridges Bay, Ontario, which is the stated origin on a DUC online auction listing for another wooden duck carved in 1925 by William Clarke.

The auctioned duck, by the way—an “antique canvasback drake decoy”—appears to have sold for CAD$176.00 on March 27, 2017, from the collection of one Peter Brown.

According to an August 2016 article on the Ducks Unlimited Canada (DUC) website, 75 year-old Peter Brown—a well-known businessperson in Vancouver, B.C.—was, as of that date, selling his entire “definitive” collection of antique Canadian waterfowl decoys, which he began acquiring in the 1980s.

Brown is quoted by the DUC article as saying that his collection of duck decoys ran to a “few thousand birds” and:

“They are beautiful things. I was happy to have them. A collection like that will likely never happen again.”

According to the article, in May of 2016, Brown donated 1,000 of his antique decoys, appraised at $1.5 million, to DUC, which was in the process of selling them off through an auction house in Montreal, with all proceeds going to DUC’s work, which involves conserving duck habitat for the benefit of ducks and (it should be said) the duck hunters who employ the exact sort of decoys which Brown spent 40 years collecting.

As DUC wrote of the collection:

“Most of the birds are working decoys carved in the late 1800s and early 1900s, including a pair of Fernland pintails appraised at $260,000”.

An important sort of Vancouver duck

Peter M. Brown has actually been a successful fixture of the Vancouver establishment for much of his adult life. He was born and raised in the city and after beginning his career in the financial sector in Montreal he returned to Vancouver and in 1968 co-founded Canarim Investment Corp. which became Canaccord Genuity, described as the largest independent investment dealer in Canada.

Brown served as the vice-chairman of Expo 86, chair of the UBC board of governors, the Vancouver Stock Exchange, B.C. Place Corporation and the Vancouver Police Foundation. He was also part of the group that staged the 2010 Winter Olympics in Metro Vancouver.

In 2003 he was a recipient of the Order of B.C.

Brown effectively retired from business in 2014 when he resigned as a director and officer of Canaccord. And in 2016, when he began getting rid of his decoy collection, he also sold his Vancouver mansion in Point Gray for $31.1 million.

One might think that Peter Brown was getting all of his ducks in a row for some reason.

The mystery of the many mock mallards isn’t solved yet

The Green Guy delivered up one of the handful of complete binder pages he kept.

I will be emailing Mr. Brown and until I receive a reply I cannot categorically state whether the duck decoy Polaroids which my friend found in a Fairview garbage are records of the celebrated Brown collection or not.

On the one hand, Brown himself did not—to my knowledge—live in the Fairview neighbourhood in 2016. But on the other hand, there’s no reason to suppose that he personally maintained all aspects of his collection.

The Polaroids actually look to be the sort of insurance record which would best be kept in a separate location from the physical collection.

Ultimately, it simply seems like too much of a coincidence to me that hundreds of annotated Polaroids of antique Canadian duck decoys would appear in a Vancouver garbage only a few months after Vancouver’s preeminent collector of such rustic Canadiana relinquished every bit of his collection.

Perhaps I will find, however, that collecting wooden waterfowl is a much more common  pursuit in Vancouver than I could possibly imagine. Click the images to enlarge them.

  1. Hey, I have two of these Polaroids in possession!


    • There’s no telling how many my friend has tucked here and there along his 26 block Fairview ambit. I received about eight of the ducky snaps I think. Perhaps it’s his way of giving back to the neighbourhood. I hope that many of those who find the gifted Polaroids also choose to keep them.


      • I would like to keep them but if you intend to give them back to the rightful owner, I will give you mine.


      • The collection which I believe these Polaroids document has been broken up and dispersed. My friend pulled them all out of the garbage so he’s now the rightful owner and he’s the one distributing them like Easter eggs. Please, by all means, enjoy his gift of ducks.


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