On a recent afternoon, the dining room table
in Richard Baldwin's Patchogue home became the temporary nest for a flock of
antique carvings of ducks and other shorebirds, all of them made by members of
the Verity family of Seaford.
The birds and their owners - two of them including Baldwin descendants of the Verity carvers - had gathered to plan next Saturday's 38th annual Long Island Decoy Collectors Association Show in Patchogue, one of the oldest continual shows of its kind in the country.
The highlight this year is what the association and co-sponsoring Seaford Historical Society are billing as the largest assemblage of Verity ducks, plovers and other shorebird decoys - more than 60 - combined with the largest gathering of Verity descendants in recent decades.
When it came to carving waterfowl for hunting primarily and art almost as an afterthought, the Seaford clan was the decoy equivalent of the painting Wyeths of Pennsylvania. Though there has been a Long Island carver or two whose work is more highly valued, the Veritys are clearly the first family of decoys based on numbers and consistently high quality over four generations.
First in a long line
The first Verity to settle in Seaford, in about 1790, was Samuel (1756-1849), a Revolutionary War veteran who was one of the earliest bay guides to take people hunting along the South Shore. His son John Henry (1788-1866), a War of 1812 veteran, also became a waterfowl guide and began carving decoys as a sideline. John Henry's son, Obediah (1813-1901), became the most noted of all Verity carvers. John Henry was a bachelor, but his nephew Smith Clinton (1845-1920), also was a renowned carver. Alonzo (1872-1938), a son of Smith Clinton, was also handy with a knife. His brother Andrew "Grubie" (1881-1976) was the most prolific, in part because he switched from pine and cedar to cork and balsa to make the bodies and used a bandsaw to rough out the heads.
John Henry was probably the first carver, although his father might have done it too, but there are no surviving examples. Several examples of John Henry's work will be displayed at the show.
"The Veritys were the first family of Seaford," said Bill Powell, whose family has lived in Seaford since 1830. He's historian of the collectors group and vice president of the Seaford Historical Society. "At one point Seaford was called Veritytown because there were so many Veritys." They lived along Verity Creek, now called Seaford Creek.
Making a living
Powell's forebears made their living off the bay as fishermen and hunters, and his grandfather and great-grandfather carved decoys.
"The big thing back then," he said, "was the selling of ducks to markets in New York City, and that was called the market gunning." The meat of ducks and many other species was sold to restaurants, and the feathers were valuable for women's hats. The federal government around 1915 outlawed market gunning to protect the species.
The Long Island Museum of American Art,
History & Carriages in Stony Brook owns more than 25 Verity decoys, mostly
plovers and other shorebirds carved by Obediah.
"They are such a distinctive style that you know from a distance it's a Verity,'' said Joshua Ruff, history curator. "They have that bold, plump almost cartoonish look to them that is charming and folksy. The way that the paint fans across the birds is also distinctive. They're one of the preeminent names in this region's carvers. They have been collected across the country."
William Bowman, a cabinetmaker from Maine who summered in Lawrence in the late 1800s and early 1900s, is considered the Michelangelo of Long Island carvers. But Ruff said the Veritys were prolific, "and they were doing their thing over several generations." And their choice of plovers and other shorebirds was unusual. "They weren't just turning out one after another of the exact clone style."
"The baymen were the best ornithologists out there; they knew their species, they knew their head positions, the habits, because they studied them nonstop," Powell said. The carvers took advantage of that, he said, to paint the birds in different colors that reflected plumage in different seasons.
Baldwin said the most distinguishing trait of a Verity decoy is that the eyes are carved rather than glass. And Tim Sieger of Bridgehampton, show committee chairman for the 130-member collectors association, said the tails are also distinctive because the tops come to an angle.
Most Verity decoys were made for hunting, but Andrew Verity made quarter-size versions as gifts, Sieger said.
Sieger said decoys have always been collectible but initially in an informal, bartering way. The association was created in 1968 by 16 men who began meeting at a Seaford bayhouse. "They gathered, told tales and swapped, but they didn't buy," Sieger said. "At that time you traded decoys."
Value in the ordinary
"It wasn't until the collection of a gentleman named William Mackey - the dean of decoy collecting - went to auction in 1973 that a distinct value was established," Sieger said. "Now it's becoming an investment more than a hobby."
He said the most expensive decoy sold publicly was a Massachusetts carving, for $915,000. "But we have heard rumors of two decoys selling for $1.3 million [each] privately," he said.
"Long Island shorebirds are ranked right up there" with the top-selling decoys, Sieger said. "We have William Bowman shorebirds that sold nine years ago for $500,000. The most expensive Verity decoy that I know of would be about $250,000."
Although he acquired a half dozen Verity decoys years ago, Baldwin, a retired Bellport High School teacher descended from the line of Joshua Verity (born 1781), said, "I'm really not a collector. I can't afford it."
Baldwin has extensively researched the family tree and identified 13 Verity carvers. The work of nine will be featured Saturday.
A signature style
Baldwin and the other experts can recognize which
Verity carved a particular bird by the style.
"It's closer to a Stephen than an Andrew," Sieger
said to a fellow collector as they eyed a bird on
Baldwin's dining room table. Stephen (1865-1950)
of Islip was a son of Obediah.
Glenn Ohlsen of Manorville, a field technician
for Verizon and an eighth-generation descendant of
Samuel, is trying to bring together other family
members for the show. His great-grandfather was
carver Melvin Verity (1865-1958) of Seaford. Ohlsen,
who owns several decoy heads carved by Melvin,
recently began researching his genealogy
and unearthed ancestors' photos.
Ohlsen expects at least 20 Verity descendants,
representing four generations coming from as far
away as Colorado, to attend Saturday and pose
for a group photograph. "I'm going to feel very,
very excited about it," Ohlsen said. "It will be a great
honor and privilege to share our grandfathers'
stories with the public and to teach our
children our family heritage."
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Expert explains value of Verity decoy
Tim Sieger of Bridgehampton,
the Long Island Decoy Collectors Association show committee chairman, explains
what makes this Verity decoy so collectible:
"This Smith Clinton Verity ruddy turnstone is a shoreline feeding
bird that would have been hunted and eaten in a pie in Verity's day.
There are only three known ruddy turnstone decoys in the
head-down feeding position. It's a rare species to find on Long Island.
Having its head down in the feeding position is also rare for a decoy.
" The carving is "spectacular," Sieger said, in part because of its
vermiculation - all the little lines painted painstakingly on the sides
of the neck and the tail with a
stick because brushes were too expensive.
"The decoy is worth about $85,000."
Closeup of a Ruddy Ternstone made by Smith Clinton Verity around 1870 and owned by Tim Sieger.
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