Joyce Mori was just a newlywed in 1970 when she knew her marriage was for the birds – duck decoys, specifically.
Bill Mori took his bride on a memorable honeymoon across the Pacific Northwest and down to Colorado not in search of romantic hideaways but on the lookout for handcrafted wooden ducks once used by hunters to lure waterfowl within shooting range.
“We were stopping at every junk shop there was,” recalls Bill Mori, 85. “We were just learning.”
His collection now features 500 of the best duck decoys ever made. A retired Realtor and broker, Mori says the collection is worth every dollar he’s invested — and then some.
“I went crazy on these things,” he says. “I’d just as soon have decoys as a few extra dollars.”
Joyce Mori has long supported her husband’s passion, even dedicating display space in their living room for about 50 prized waterfowl.
At one point, the couple had 1,000 decoys in their home. By the time Bill Mori narrowed his collection to “quality, not quantity,” he’d become a go-to man for other collectors seeking information about carvers, styles and values.
In addition to his decoys, Mori has amassed about 400 books on the subject and has become something of an expert on duck decoys, widely valued as American folk art.
“I don’t want to sound like a braggart,” he says, “but I do know a lot about them.”
Born in the valley’s rural Vineburg region, Mori was just a teen when he and his older brother Carlos trekked to a “shack” near Skaggs Island where an old-timer carved decoys for duck hunters who frequented the nearby sloughs.
Mori remembers that the gravel-voiced man, Dick Janson, told the pair he’d carve the decoys if they provided the wood. The brothers returned with 25 old redwood railroad ties, which Janson crafted into a few dozen decoys.
At the time, Janson “was considered the greatest carver in California,” Mori says.
A Canada goose carved by Ben Schmidt in the 1940s, at left, and a Pacific brant carved by Paul Kenney in the 1930s. (Christopher Chung/The Press Democrat)
Janson charged the going rate back in 1944: $3 each or $36 for a dozen. Today collectible decoys go for a minimum of about $50 each – some topping a record $1 million for a lone bird.
Mori still has six of those Janson originals, which are among his favorites. He values the craftsmanship as well as the memory of an era long gone in Sonoma Valley.
Mori’s interest in collecting came at the urging of a few friends who were decoy collectors. The men shared resources and assisted one another, with a friendly competition keeping things lively.
“It was fun. It really was fun,” Mori says of his decades of collecting.
Today the duck hunter and decoy collector has one of the most impressive collections around, reportedly “the biggest collection west of the Mississippi,” Mori says.
Duck decoys date to the late 1800s, with early styles carved by hand to painstaking detail. Mori says the tradition began on the East Coast before moving west across the country. Many antique decoys contain shot holes or grazes, which don’t necessarily lessen their value.
“All of them were made for hunting,” Mori says. “You don’t want a duck decoy that looks like it was just made.”
Although individual craftsmen continue the tradition today, there was a time when the demand for decoys opened the doors to factory productions. Artisans were employed to carve and paint the decoys for such factories as Mason’s Decoy Factory in Detroit, the most famous of the era in the late 1890s.
Mori knows all about the various grades of decoys by assessing the carving, painting variations (oil-based paints on the oldest decoys), even the kinds of eyes placed into the ducks, from tacks to realistic glass beads. The workmanship is part of the value and, as with most collections, the rarer the item, the greater its worth.
“It’s the reputation of the carver. His name gets around,” Mori says. “They were artists. It’s just like if you were buying art.”
Hand-carved decoys from the Mason Decoy Factory produced between 1900-1925. (Christopher Chung/ The Press Democrat)
The range of decoys is vast. There are puddle ducks and diving ducks, geese and swans. Some are hollow, others solid, some weighted, some not. While most collectible decoys are handcrafted of redwood, cedar, rosewood, balsawood and other timbers, some were made of canvas or cork, the contemporary ones even of plastic.
From pintails to mallards, hens and drakes, singles or in pairs, what does Mori notice first?
“I start with the good-looking ones, the old ones,” he says.
Each of his decoys is lifelike, almost all of them crafted to exact scale.
“They’re all life-size. Some were made oversize on purpose so the bird could see them from a distance,” he says. “If I put these out on the water I’d think they were real.”
Mori spent the past 45 years amassing his collection by attending decoy shows, rifling through thrift stores, junk shops and dusty old barns, reading want ads, making connections with fellow collectors, and finally, with the advent of the Internet, visiting online shops and auctions.
He once scored a handsome mallard drake in flight while checking his real estate listings in a Marin newspaper. He noticed an ad for a duck boat “and other things” under the miscellaneous offerings.
A phone call later, Mori was headed to Mill Valley to swap the requested $5 for the unwanted carving hanging in a little boy’s bedroom.
“I saw that thing and I couldn’t believe it. That was the best find I ever made,” Mori recalls.
Mori has received calls from museums, collectors and investors alike but has no interest in parting with any of his beloved birds. His decoy collection represents something more than money.
“We just love them. Joyce loves them, too,” he says. “I enjoy looking at the darn things. Even if they weren’t mine, they’re beautiful.”
Starting as souvenirs from a long-ago honeymoon, the ducks have steadily grown with the couple’s marriage.