Photo by Bates Littlehales for National Geographic Magazine. In the old Currituck shop circa 1978.
CHARLES SPIRON DECOYS
Charles Spiron (b. 1948) has been carving decoys professionally for nearly four decades and working with many of Americas most important museums. In 1977, Currituck Decoy Company was established in Currituck, NC.
In the mid 1970’s we moved into an old white frame farm house sitting since 1927 on a bluff overlooking the Currituck Sound less than a quarter mile from the ferry landing at Currituck, NC. Market hunting, decoy making, gunning clubs, and the unmatched abundance of waterfowl all combined to make the area a living history museum of our waterfowling past. From my front porch I could look across the Currituck Sound and see Mackey’s Island, Knotts Island and the Back Bay, and to our right was Churches Island and Waterlilly home to Ned Burgess and Bob Morse. I was not prepared for the spectacle when the first birds began to arrive shortly after we move in and I saw literally thousands of snow geese and Swan landing within yards of our front door. I was fascinated by the abundance of waterfowl but still ignorant of the history of the area. There was a small country store located at the ferry landing, its owner was a man named Wilson Snowden. He was a decoy collector and was the first to spark my interest in decoy collecting and eventually carving.
Looking back now some 40 years, it is amazing how fortunate I was to be in that particular time and place. Old decoys were readily available just about everywhere you looked and they were cheap. My first purchase was a Ned Burgress Canvasback in original paint for the princely sum of $5.00. I was so taken with the style and form of the Burgress decoys I never really went after other makers and had no interest in the battery decoys that could be had for three or four dollars, or less.
I was soon carving and selling under the name “Currituck Decoy Company”. All the decoys were branded, initially with a home made brand that read “CDCo”, and later a different brand, “Currituck Decoy Company”. Almost all were signed and dated. I started out painting in both oil paints and latex. I used Sherwin-Williams A-100 flat exterior house paint, had them mix about a dozen base colors, and I would tint from these. I had been making a variety of “Ward Style” decoys simply because I thought they were the best. I was approached by Ken Basile, the Ward Foundation Museum director, about selling limited edition replicas in their gift shop and we sold canvasback, pintail, mallard, and teal, both drakes and hens.
1978 was a pivotal year in my carving career. I was exhibiting at all the major Mid-Atlantic decoy shows including the Waterfowl Festival, and also showing at about six major craft shows. At the American Craft Council Show in Baltimore I was approached by a Curator from the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Folk Art Museum at Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia. The museum had an extensive collection of decoys, shorebirds, and other woodcarvings and was interested in starting an authorized licensee reproduction program like they had with Kittinger Furniture and Stieff Silversmith. I jumped at the chance and when I went to meet with their staff everything changed for me and the direction of my work.
In the late 1970’s American Folk Art was very popular as was the world of decoy collecting. AARFAC had just completed a major new museum building and wanted to make the public aware of their collection. On my first visit they let me choose three items to take home and create reproductions. I made two copies of the original and they were presented to their nine member committee made up of museum curators and the Foundation directors for approval. Copies had to be exact in every detail as they compared my offerings to the original. If they were satisfied with the work, they would sign off on the item, they retained one copy and returned one to me. Their copy went to the distribution facility and every item I carved for resale was compared to that standard. If it failed, it was returned to me, the standards of Colonial Williamsburg are unwavering. Our relationship would last nearly twenty years with them selling more than 5,000 items including decoys, shorebirds, whirligigs, weathervanes, and other carvings including their famous Calico Cat. My biggest order from them was when they remodeled the Williamsburg Lodge. They ordered a full size Ed Phillips Canada Goose, a Boyd Yellowlegs Shorebird, and a Calico Cat for every single guest room. Plus, ordered more that a hundred additional items including their Sandhill Crane Confidence Decoy, Whirligigs, Decoy Pairs, and Shorebirds that went into the lobby and public spaces. Many of those pieces are still there today.
My relationship with Colonial Williamsburg changed the game by giving me financial consistency and by opening doors of opportunity all across the country. Williamsburg Shops were located in major retailers like Neiman-Marcus and Saks and they all ordered carvings for their stores. In addition, as one of only 15 licensees, I could sell the approved carvings to other retailers and pay royalties to Williamsburg. At one point we had 27 items approved for reproduction. They featured my work in magazines like Colonial Homes, Country Living, Metropolitan Homes, and Architectural Digest.
The success of the Williamsburg program also encouraged others to begin similar programs. I was named the official carver for the Winterthur Museum in Delaware and soon added the Smithsonian Institute to the list. In those pre-internet days, all these organizations printed catalogues for mass distribution. There were years that I had items in all three in addition to having my original carvings in other well know catalogues like Wildwings, Tidewater Sportsman, and Neiman-Marcus. During these early years, I was fortunate to develop many great relationships with men who taught and inspired me in my work. There are two I want to specifically mention because they helped and encouraged me so much in the early years. Neal Conoley, author of the seminal book on North Carolina decoys, "Waterfowl Heritage: North Carolina Decoys and Gunning Lore". Neal was a frequent visitor, a super guy and good friend. He taught me so much about the heritage that was all around me and encouraged me in my carving.He got me tied in with Ducks Unlimited and I was soon doing carvings for dozens of chapters every year for their banquets. Neal was also nice enough to include me in his book. Another man who visited frequently was Bud Coppedge, in my opinion the greatest decoy dealer ever. I bought from, and sold to, Bud hundreds of decoys over the years and every transaction was a joy. Bud was the most honest guy I ever met in the decoy business. He never misrepresented a decoy and only took a very modest profit. Bud was a decoy dealer because of his love for the art form and not the money. He handled more North Carolina and Back Bay decoys than anyone and millions of dollars worth of decoys (in todays prices) passed through his hands. I last saw him in December 2015 at Harkers Island when we had a lovely visit. We joked about all the decoys he had owned and what they would all be worth today. Bud as always just shrugged it off, he was such a gentleman and will be greatly missed.
All through the eighties and nineties while most of my efforts we on the museum programs, I continued to carve original work. I exhibited at all the major Mid-Atlantic decoy shows including the Waterfowl Festival and the major shows promoted by the American Craft Council. There was even a special one man show of my work at the Smithsonian. All the carving I was doing through this period I considered to be my “retail” work. Most of the decoys were hollow, many with detail work and covered all species. All were either branded “SPIRON” or had a carved signature. My shorebirds had either a carved signature or a brand "CS" near the dowel hole. They were painted in both oils and latex. I had developed a good solid group of collectors so I made a lot of items specific for them. I also began to branch out to other carvings, including trade pieces, ship figureheads and nautical carvings, whirligigs, and weathervanes. These items were both an opportunity to develop my skills and a chance to do the unexpected.
Forty years have passed, my carving has been reduced to a few dozen pieces a year, and the decoy world has changed so much. In the seventies and eighties when every person wanted a decoy on their mantle, they would stand three deep at your table in Easton and throw money at you to get a decoy. At a show like the Waterfowl Festival there were dozens of dealers selling old decoys and the general public had unlimited choices at affordable prices. Today, the auctions have taken over, the selections at shows are more limited and the prices have left the average collector behind. There are fewer buyers in general, but they are knowledgeable and very selective collectors. Unfortunately, decoy collecting is now a rich man's game if you go for quality. I have always believed that we who are called "contemporary carvers" serve a purpose by offering affordable options to the public who want a decoy made in the traditional manner and style. I always tried to make my work affordable and I probably sold half the decoys I ever made for less that $300. Now, prices are higher and I have even seen some of my fellow carvers have their work sell at sums comparable to the antique decoys. As always, the market decides what is valuable and collectable. With my $5.00 Ned Burgess decoys now selling for $5,000 and up who is to say what the future holds. Through the years I have made many thousands of decoys, shorebirds, and other carvings. As time has passed my carving process has changed. I produce far fewer decoys but, I spend much more time on each piece and, I believe I am now creating my best decoys ever, but I suppose history and future collectors will decide if I am correct.
I have created a lot of work that I am very proud of, but the time has come to begin the process of deaccession so I have a section with items for sale. All items offered for sale, either new creations or carvings I made years ago will be sold through a few selected decoy dealers I have absolute confidence in. David O'Neal from Ocracoke, NC, I have know since his Coast Guard days nearly forty years ago. David is the premier dealer of quality decoys in North Carolina and a true gentleman. Visiting his shop in Ocracoke is a treat for the collector at any level. Tom Reed is very well know throughout the decoy community and is a second generation decoy collector and dealer. Tom operates American Sporting Classics, a primer web site offering highly collectable decoys and American sporting art, as well as exhibiting at all the major decoy shows and national auctions. Gary Campbell is also one of Americas most respected dealers and collectors. Gary operates the internets number one site featuring collectable decoys and shorebirds. With decades of experience and a reputation as one offering the best in quality carvings, Gary can also be found exhibiting at all the best decoy shows and national auctions. I have provided complete information on each of these dealers and their websites at the bottom of the For Sale page. All three will usually have a limited number of carvings available and they will change frequently, so you may want to contact them directly to see what is available.
What I am most proud of are our children who are all outstanding and accomplished individuals. My son, Charles “Chip” Spiron, has begun to take a more serious interest in decoys and carving which makes me very pleased. Growing up around decoys, working in the shop and going to shows, he has always had the knowledge and skills. As a former golf professional and now a successful college golf coach he has had the challenge of finding the time. But, with the recent arrival of his son “Charlie”, came the realization that he needs to get serious with his carving so he can pass on the knowledge to the next generation. He has started this site to provide information on my work, and a forum for him as he develops his craft.
Over the years I have received hundreds of letters and phone calls from individuals with questions, from repairs to details on how an item was made. Through the email option on this site I will be pleased to correspond with anyone with questions. Finally, I intend to have a section where I ruminate through four decades of personal experiences. I was lucky to be there when decoy collecting exploded with the general public and met many of the true legends of collecting and carving, the dealers who did the research and wrote the great books, and the true masters of contemporary carving. I get a lot of questions from my family and friends about how things were and how they have changed. I want to write my recollections down for them while I can still remember my name…you are invited to read along if you wish. Thanks
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