In today’s post we will look at the 12 federal duck stamps that were issued from 1972-73 through 1983-84 (RW39 – RW50). This period saw the collecting of duck stamps and prints really take flight. We will explore some of the reasons behind this phenomenon and discover why even more hunters than before would make the effort to sign their stamps in a small, unobtrusive manner.
More to the point, why it became an unofficial contest to see who could sign their name the smallest. During this same period, more hunters would save their expired licenses intact instead of attempting to remove and save just the duck stamp. They were no longer viewed simply as a hunting memento – as the used licenses now possessed tangible monetary value as well.
For collectors of duck stamps and prints (both then and now) this time period represents the ultimate fish and game candy shop, stocked with enough treats as to make even the au fait lightheaded.
With regard to used federal duck stamps, they can often be found in abundance (off or on license). This, combined with some all-time favorite designs and lots of small signatures, can make for an inexpensive (usually under $10), rewarding and superfun collecting experience.
Following the end of the Vietnam War (1973-1975), there occurred one of the deepest recessions in U.S. history. This recession was precipitated by many factors, including excessive spending on the war, the quadrupling of oil prices by OPEC and the stock market crash of 1973-74 (see Figure 1).
Despite this fact, the annual sale of federal duck stamps remained very strong, adding nine more seasons of two million plus to the three seasons at the end of the Vietnam War Period. Altogether, this streak of 12 straight seasons (1969-70 through 1980-81) where over two million duck stamps were sold to hunters, collectors, wildlife art enthusiasts and conservation-minded citizens would set a record which would never be broken in the history of the program.
More Great Duck Stamp Art
Although not approaching the sustained genius of the previous period, there were a number of exceptional pieces issued during the post Vietnam period. Fortuitously for our hobby, three of these were issued in a row, early in the period, from 1974-75 through 1976-77 (RW41 – RW43).
The artwork for the 1974-75 issue (RW41) was created by talented Minnesota artist David Maass. His winning entry at the 1973 federal duck stamp art contest was an oil painting featuring a pair of wood ducks in flight (see Figure 2).
As we shall see, David’s art would serve as a major influence on the development of a new market for buying and selling duck stamps and prints in the U.S. First, the winning artwork was sent to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing (BEP), where the stamp was designed by Frank J. Waslick and engraved by Joseph J. Creamer and James L. Goodbody (see Figure 3).
After receiving the artwork back from the BEP, David brought it to his good friend Bill Webster, a collector and dealer in duck stamps and related wildlife art who had recently launched Wild Wings, Inc., a wildlife art gallery and mail order business based in Lake City Minnesota.
Bill and his company would serve as the publisher for the 1974 duck stamp prints. Johnson Printing, located across the Mississippi River in Eau Claire, Wisconsin, then produced a gorgeous print from David’s original art (see (figure 4).
However, Bill did more than simply publish the print. He was the first print dealer and publisher to actively promote the sale of the prints. Using every resource available, Bill advertised and promoted the heck out of it. Although the edition size was not numbered, he told me it was “about 4,000”.
We may never know exactly how many 1974 prints Bill sold over the years. However, just a few years ago, when I purchased the remainder of Wild Wings duck stamp print inventory at auction – there were only 21 prints that remained unsold (see The Bill Webster Sale art Siegel’s – Part One).
Bill licensed the image to be reproduced on everything under the sun; coffee mugs, key chains, plates, place mats – and anything else you can think of. It was a remarkable job of promotion and one that raised the public consciousness for duck stamps and duck stamp prints to new heights.
In 1973, wildlife artist James Fisher made a visit to the Elkton, Maryland Decoy Show. James had long been an admirer of hand-carved, wooden decoys. According to his bio in Duck Stamp Prints by Stearns and Fink, there he met the passionate decoy collector R.G. Biddle III:
“…who, after seeing some of the paintings Jim had done of decoys, offered to let him borrow decoys from his collection. Jim was attracted to one decoy in particular, a weathered old Mason Canvasback drake. He decided to paint it for his first and only entry in the annual duck stamp contest. When the judging was finished, he had captured one of the most coveted awards in the wildlife art world.”
This was not the only thing that James would capture with his provocative duck stamp art – he would capture the imagination of people from all walks of life in a way previously not possible.
That yet another iconic piece of duck stamp art would follow so closely on not just the heels of the insanely popular Maass piece – but all of the stunning duck stamp pieces that were produced all through the Vietnam War was, for the American public, like being struck by lightning… repeatedly. They were gazing in rapt attention.
Thanks to James and the judges who had the courage to vote for it, “the decoy” now made it an easy choice on the part of many people to become duck stamp and/or print collectors. At this same time, many decoy collectors decided that a complete set of duck stamps, framed around this print, would make a nice addition to their home or office decoy display (see Figures 5 and 6).
Among the people whose imaginations were captured by “the decoy”, as well as the recent run of amazing duck stamp art, were two young kids (still in high school) on the west coast. One worked part time for a local stamp dealer in California who had a big interest in the duck stamps himself, Greg Nelson, and the other worked part time in his dad’s sporting goods store in Washington state.
Within a couple of years, each of them independently made the decision to try and make a living buying and selling duck stamps. Their names were David Torre and Michael Jaffe, respectively.
The Rise of an Industry
Prior to the mid 1970s, most duck stamps and duck stamp prints were sold in the U.S. by either a large wildlife art dealer like Abercrombie & Fitch in New York or Beverly Hills, Bill’s Wild Wings (founded in 1968), Burnett Harschman’s Sport’ N’ Art (1972), Russell Fink’s Gallery (1972) or a large U.S. stamp dealer like Robert Siegel, Leo Scarlet or Metro Stamp Co. (all located in New York City).
Out in California, E.L. Vanderford had been selling a fair number of federal duck stamps for years and his involvement intensified after publishing his Handbook of Fish and Game Stamps in 1973. However, Van’s main line of work was managing an auto parts warehouse and his time was limited.
Then, within a stretch of five or six years during the 1970s, a number of individuals would enter into and help develop the nascent market for duck stamps and prints. After myself and Michael, followed Robert Dumaine, Carlo Vecchiarelli, Bob Cornett, Barry Porter, David Curtis, Richard Houk, Phil Gigante and Tom De Luca (see Figure 7).
By the end of the 1970s, amid the feverish market for all U.S. stamps, in general, we were all attending shows and advertising to buy and sell duck stamps and prints. It was a fun, competitive environment and as a result – the items came to have real value. This was not lost on hunters.
A Spotlight on Duck Stamp Prints
The artwork chosen by the judges for the 1976-77 duck stamp (RW43), was another exciting, unique piece – a family of Canadian geese executed by Alderson Magee in the scratchboard medium. Also known as “scraperboard”, the medium originated in England and France during the 19th century.
The artist uses a sharp tool to engrave or “scratch off” (dark) ink on a board to reveal lighter tones underneath and create a design comprised of a series of straight lines against a dark background (see Figure 8).
As Russell Fink points out in his book, “Although the print appears to be [in] black and white… it is actually in three colors; warm black, cool black and sepia. The softness and dimension achieved in the print would not have been possible in a one-color black printing process.”
The effect was superb and demand, likewise. At this point in 1976, five of the last seven federal duck stamp prints had been (to coin a phrase that is not entirely applicable) real barnburners. In order, we had the first print to be produced in color (1970), a print whose entire edition was hand-colored by the legendary Maynard Reece or a member of his family (1971), David Maass’ wood ducks (1974), “the decoy” (1975) and now the elegant and sophisticated scratchboard by Magee (1976).
Very simply, the collecting of duck stamp prints exploded. From 1970 through 1973, the edition size numbered 950-1000. By the end of the decade it was up to 8,500 (1979).
The 1980-81 issue (RW47) was another real crowdpleaser. Artwork by Richard Plasschaert, the pair of flying mallards was in constant demand for over a decade – a demand that frequently outstripped it’s availability on the market, despite an edition size of 12,950 (see Figures 9 and 10).
By now, the federal duck stamp had gained tremendous nationwide recognition and prestige. The artist was able to sell so many prints that it became known as the million dollar duck and, in fact, within a few short years artists were realizing as much as $2,000,000. We were all selling duck stamp prints like they were going out of style – and, as we shall see in Part Five, they nearly did.
It seemed like every American artist wanted a shot at the brass ring, so it did not come as a terribly big surprise when I learned the 1981 duck stamp contest drew a record number of entries (2,099).
The winner, David Maass, came back with another stunning piece of artwork to be used as the vignette for the 1982-83 issue (RW49), a trio of Canvasbacks flying across a windy Minnesota lake. Once again, Bill Webster published the print and had it produced by Johnson Lithographics in Eau Claire. The number of prints in the first edition dwarfed the record-setter from just two years prior – coming in at 22,500 (see Figure 11).
The 1983-84 issue (RW50), featured a pair of pintails by artist Phil Scholer. The last stamp to be included in this period was another pleasing piece and the print was even better. In yet another first for this memorable period – as the stamp was the 50th in the series, there was a separate print edition accompanied by a round, gold-colored medallion. Labeled the Golden Edition, it was very popular with collectors (see Figure 12).
The regular edition numbered 17,400 prints, plus 6,700 in the medallion edition – for a total of 24,100. As recently as 1973-74 (10 years earlier), the total edition size had only been 1,000.
Hunters Take Notice
Due, in large part, to the burgeoning market for duck stamp prints (now ubiquitous and prominently displayed on the walls of many American homes and offices), you would have to be living under a rock to not know what a duck stamp was in the 1970s and 1980s.
Furthermore, the friendly competition waged by this new breed of stamp dealers who specialized in duck stamps and (to a greater or lesser extent) other kinds of fish and game stamps – referred to as duck stamp dealers – was played out in print not just within the confines of collectibles publications but also within hunting and fishing magazines, Ducks Unlimited Magazine, California Waterfowl Association Magazine and the classified sections of newspapers in “promising” locations.
We were selling sets of framed stamps in all different grades to hunters with all different budgets. The least expensive option was used. Within this price point, the most bang for your buck could be had by putting together a set of used stamps with no gum (the hunter affixed the stamp to his/her license but did not sign it – in violation of the law) or a set of stamps with nice, neat signatures.
Someone, I believe it was Bob Dumaine, realized we could get a premium for used stamps with small, unobtrusive signatures. Therefore, we made it clear in our advertising, at shows and through word of mouth that we would pay extra money for such stamps – especially from the Early Period.
Not to put too fine a point on it – but just about everyone soon came to think that all duck stamps were worth $$$. For this reason, more and more hunters took extra care in signing their stamps – some obviously thinking the smaller the better. It almost became a separate duck stamp contest, to see who could sign their name the smallest (see Figure 13).
More collectors, including the pioneer fish and game exhibitors, began requesting stamps still affixed to the hunter’s license – showing their “usage”. So then we let everyone know we would pay extra $ for these, too. As a result, many hunters signed their name quite small and also saved their licenses to pass on to a collector friend or relative or, perhaps, to sell to a duck stamp dealer for big $$$.
Although the money seldom matched their lofty expectations, we did manage to bring a relatively large number of these little treasures into the collector market during this time and most of the hunter’s were, really, quite happy. So, let’s see – who could actually sign their name the smallest?
The Heyday Period
To start, we have two examples of the 1972-73 issue (RW39), one off license with a small signature by Andrew Colella and one used on license in combination with a 1972 Iowa Migratory Waterfowl Stamp. The artwork for the Iowa stamp was created by Maynard Reece. It was the first Iowa duck stamp, the second state duck stamp overall (after California in 1971), and the first state duck stamp to be printed in color. In this case, the hunter has signed the federal stamp primarily in the selvage (see Figures 14 and 15).
Next, we have two examples of the 1973-74 issue (RW40). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with a 1973 Kansas Upland Game Bird Stamp and 1973 Marion County Duck and Fishing Stamps.
The Marion County Duck Stamp is one of the last five stamps sold, to Parks and Lake Supervisor John Waner. John’s signature on the federal is very small and unobtrusive (see Figures 16-18).
Next we have two examples of the 1974-75 issue (RW41), one off license with a very tiny signature by Andre Colella and one on license used in combination with 1974-75 California Hunting License Validation and Duck Stamps (on opposite side) and a 1974-75 Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) Hunting Stamp (see Figures 19 and 20).
Next, we have three examples of the 1975-76 issue (RW42). Two are off license; one with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one with an even smaller signature, largely in the right border by C.K. Bale. The third is on license, used in combination with a 1975-76 Florida Management Area Hunting Stamp (see Figures 21, 21a and 22).
Next, we have two examples of the 1976-77 issue (RW43). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with a 1976-77 California Duck Stamp. The federal has a very small signature by E.L. Vanderford (see Figures 23 and 24).
To change things up a bit, I am now going to show two examples of the 1977-78 issue (RW44) off license – and neither is signed by Andrew Colella. The reason being, I appreciate the thought and effort on the part of each of these hunters.
In the first case, the hunter’s signature, while not tiny, was very carefully placed and arranged in a complimentary color of ink. In the second, the signature is very small and almost completely located within the upper border. This hunter used a color of ink that is nearly identical to the background – therefore, portions of the signature that overlap the design are not readily visible to the naked eye (see Figures 25 and 26).
Next, we have two examples of the 1978-79 issue (RW45). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with a 1978-79 California Duck Stamp. The federal has a very small signature by E.L. Vanderford (see Figures 23 and 24).
For the 1979-80 issue (RW46), we have one off license and two still affixed. The first example has a small, unobtrusive signature by Ken Fee (see Figure 29). Recently passed, Ken had many hobbies. In addition to being an avid hunter, he was a life-long collector of antique bottles, picture postcards, postal history and stamps of all kinds – to include fish and game.
The first example on license is used in combination with a 1979 Missouri (first of state) Waterfowl Stamp. Note that while the signature is not very small, the color of ink used by the hunter and the its placement makes it quite unobtrusive (see Figure 30).
The second is used in combination with a 1979-80 California Hunting License Validation Stamp (opposite side) and a 1979-80 California Duck Stamp. The federal stamp has a small signature by E.L. Vanderford (see Figure 31).
Next we have two examples of the 1980-81 issue (RW47), both off license. The first has a very small signature by Andrew Colella and the second is a plate number single, signed in a similar manner (see Figures 32 and 33).
Next, we have two examples of the 1981-82 issue (RW48). One is off license with a very small signature by Andrew Colella and one is used on license in combination with 1981 Wisconsin Waterfowl and 1982 Wisconsin Great Lakes Salmon & Trout Stamps (see Figures 34 and 35).
Next we have two examples of the 1982-83 issue (RW49), on off license with a very tiny signature and one on license in combination with a 1982 Kentucky Trout Stamp. Note the federal stamp has a small signature by Owen Chelf, who we first encountered in Part Two with the 1951-52 attached husband and wife pair (see Figures 36 and 37).
To end the Heyday Period, we pay tribute to two men who respected the art and took the time to very carefully sign their stamps in a small, unobtrusive manner – starting long before there was any consideration of a financial return.
We have two examples of the 1983-84 issue (RW50), both off license. One is signed by Owen Chelf and the other by Andrew Colella. This is the last time we will see a stamp from Owen Chelf in this series of posts (see Figures 38 and 39).