Fish decoys -- lures without hooks vividly embellished with paints, glistening fins, glass eyes and iridescent glitter -- are the closest many collectors come to the sport that spawned them: ice fishing. Made since prehistoric times to attract fish so they could be speared through holes in the ice, these carvings evolved in the 20th century into witty, sometimes weird artifacts.
Ice fishing flourishes around the Great Lakes, the region that produced the majority of items in "Fish Decoys," an exhibition through March 28 at the American Primitive Gallery, 596 Broadway, south of Houston Street. Organized by Aarne Anton, the gallery owner, the show is the most ambitious dealer presentation of this folk art to date.
Of the 200 decoys, more than 150 were made before 1960. Except for three examples from Alaska that date to 2500 B.C, all are for sale. Among them are the American Indian carvings of the 19th and 20th centuries and decoys by major Midwestern craftsmen like Oscar Peterson, Hans Janner Sr. and Leroy Howell. Prices range from $90 each for several of the less decorative decoys to $12,500 for a 1930 spotted trout by Janner.
Fish decoys began to attract buyers other than sportsmen in the late 1970's. Mr. Anton, who has stocked decoys for a decade, said that anglers are still the most numerous collectors, but folk-art buffs of all kinds vie for the choicest specimens.
"Some buyers are vegetarians," he said. "I'm a Buddhist, and I wouldn't even consider catching or spearing a fish. When asked why I handle fish decoys, my answer is that I'm taking them out of circulation so they won't be used again."
Mr. Anton appreciates decoys for their variety, from the elaborately painted to those devoid of decoration, from the minnow-sized to those as large as sturgeons. He prefers the decoys of the Chippewa or Ojibwa Indians. "They're the plainest," he said. "Using the natural wood, the Indians stained or burned the surfaces. Some artisans hung bits of metal on the fins, and one decoy in the show is feathered."
Collectors often specialize in the works of certain carvers. Virtually none are signed, but many have been identified by specialists. "Oscar Peterson's decoys are among the more realistic," Mr. Anton said. "They have an aerodynamic shape and curvature that gives them a certain desirable movement in the water."
Howell's more stylized decoys, carved in abstract shapes and decorated with straight or wavy bands of solid color, also include fish patterned with large dots or flowers. "There's a linear quality to his carving and painting that reflects his trade as a house painter," Mr. Anton said. "He knew how to get sharp, crisp images. The eyes are always perfectly round, incised by a bullet shell."
Many of Janner's more sculptural fish are oiled or unfinished. Others are washed with a thin coat of paint that reveals the grain or are delicately adorned with impressionistic images. "In the water they seem alive," Mr. Anton said. "Janner favored walnut as a wood and used copper to make curvilinear fins that are unlike anyone else's."
In the exhibition, offbeat decoys outnumber the conventional carvings of bass, trout, pike, sunfish, shovelheads and suckers. Among the more unusual is a red and white fish hinged at the center to flip about in the water. A weathered, 29-inch-long sturgeon has eyes of screws and washers, a tin-can mouth and a tail wrapped with wire. There are fish with rocket shapes, leather tails, pearl eyes, mirrored sides and angel's wings for fins. One decoy is a bowling pin, painted orange with black spots fitted with tin fins and marble eyes.
"Others are carved or weighted so that they list to one side, as if wounded or sick," Mr. Anton said. "It's done to attract certain predators."
Prices for many fish decoys soared in the booming art market of the 1980's. Oscar Peterson's decoys, for example, which cost $200 to $300 in 1982, now range in price from $1,000 to $6,000. Prices also rose sharply in 1990 when "Beneath the Ice: The Art of the Fish Decoy," the first major museum exhibition on the subject, opened at the Museum of American Folk Art in New York. Two weeks before the show opened, a nine-inch-long Peterson trout sold at Sotheby's in New York for $18,700, a record at auction for a fish decoy. "Beneath the Ice" is on view through April 6 at the John G. Shedd Aquarium in Chicago, the final stop of its two-year tour.
"We sold more fish decoys than any other category of folk art in our stock at the Fall Antiques Show," Mr. Anton said. "Some people were discovering them for the first time, while others who bought one or two were doing what they do every year."