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By David Iams
For The Philadelphia Inquirer

Decoys, it is widely argued, are a uniquely American art form. The American Folk Art Museum in New York, which includes a large number of decoys in its collections, asserts in a descriptive label that they were originally used by American Indian hunters.

Tomorrow, Frank & Frank Auctions will conduct its semiannual sale of decoys, art and sporting collectibles at the Taylor Pavilion in Belmar, N.J., in Monmouth County.

From the outset, decoy-making was concentrated in central and southern New Jersey, the auction company's Jon Frank said, adding, "The first decoys were made in Bordentown, near the Delaware."

A half-dozen Bordentown birds are included in Sunday's 412-lot sale, which begins at 10 a.m. They include a pair of mallards made by John McLoughlin, expected to sell for $2,000 to $3,000, according to the auction catalog.

Thanks to New Jersey's nearness to waterfowl-hunting areas, decoys made there have continued to dominate the market, although those from Maryland, Maine and the Midwest may command higher prices.

The sale includes seven by Hurley Conklin of Manahawkin, including a pair of wood ducks expected to sell for $1,500 to $1,800; seven by members of the H.V. Shourds family of Tuckerton and Seaville; eight by contemporary carver Forrest Jennings of Shamong, including a northern loon that took Best of Show at a 1988 exhibit at Chestertown, Md.; and 11 by members of the Birdsall clan of Barnegat.

Among the last grouping is a black duck made by Capt. Jesse Birdsall that the catalog calls one of the finest examples of his work. Given its good condition, it is expected to bring $2,500 to $3,500.

New Jersey decoys can be distinguished by their construction technique, Frank said. "Delaware River birds almost always have the carved wing detail and the carved tail. They also are almost always hollow and quite often have a low head profile."

Upper Chesapeake decoys, on the other hand, "are almost always solid carved, almost always have a bottom keel-style weight, and almost always have a ring-and-staple for rigging," he said. Among the Upper Chesapeake decoys to be offered is a bluebill drake made about 1932 by L.T. Ward Bros. of Crisfield, Md., that is expected to sell for $8,000 to $12,000, the auction's top price.

Preview is 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. today and 8 a.m. to sale time tomorrow at the sale site, Ocean and Fifth Avenues, Belmar. For more information, call 732-938-2988
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