The Dean of Minnesota’s Wildlife Artists – Part Two

When we last left off, Les Kouba had recently opened American Wildlife Art Galleries and was enjoying all that 1950s post-war prosperity had to offer a talented, hard-working individual with a head for business. By 1957, Les had already been receiving notices from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service for several years informing him about the annual federal duck stamp art contest.

Les had never taken the time to enter, as he was “always too busy working on items that paid money to enter a contest where your chances of winning were slim to none. I always looked at my art career through the eyes of a businessman”.

Now, with his business thriving, Les afforded himself the luxury of taking some time off to create a piece of artwork that would not only win the prestigious contest, but allow him to burst onto the national art scene and begin to cement his status as one of the country’s most renown wildlife artists.


The 1957 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest

On July 21, 1957, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service announced the “Ninth Annual Federal Duck Stamp Design Contest”. The contest would be open from August 1 through November 1 of 1957 and the winning artwork would be featured on the 1958-59 federal migratory bird hunting stamp.

The press release stated that “no species will be considered in the judging which has been used on a stamp in the last five years”. These include Blue-winged teal, Ring-neck duck, Blue geese, American merganser and American Eider (see Figures 1a and b).



Figures 1a (top) and b (bottom). USFWS press release announcing the ninth federal duck stamp design contest.



According to Les, the inspiration for his design was provided by his sister-in-law, Mavis (Mrs Sep Herschman). She gave Les a photo of some Canada geese she had taken on her farm and according to Les, “the unusual position of the geese inspired me to make a sketch”.

It seems that on that particular day, five geese had left their neighbor’s property and walked right into her front yard. Mavis grabbed a camera and started taking photos, one of which she gave to Les. Randy Herschman (Mavis’ son) recalls that his brother, Joel, was standing fairly close to the geese while she was taking the photos  –  they were actually quite tame.

Les then selected three of the geese to be the focal point of both his sketch and the subsequent painting he entered into the contest. As corn fields were abundant waterfowl habitat throughout much of Minnesota at the time, Les removed the geese from his sister-in-laws front yard and placed them in a corn field setting (see Figure 2).



Figure 2. Les uses the photo provided by his sister-in-law to put the finishing touches on his entry for the 1957 federal duck stamp design contest. Image from The Legacy of Les C. Kouba.



The medium Les chose for his entry was a black and white wash. He spent just 2 1/2 hours on his artwork and sent it to the USFWS shortly before the November 1 deadline. Within two weeks, the judges had selected Kouba’s design of Canada geese feeding in a cornfield for the 1958-59 stamp. A total of 96 designs were submitted by 55 artists (see Figures 3 and 4).



Figure 3. Les Kouba with the 1958-59 duck stamp design. This is the actual photo used by the Minneapolis Star Tribune to announce “Minneapolis Artist Wins Competition”. It was published on November 16, 1957 and recently acquired by Arlen Axdahl on Ebay.



Figure 4. USFWS press release announcing the winner of the 1957 federal duck stamp design contest.



1958-59 Stamps Issued

After the artwork was selected by the judges, it went to designer Robert L. Miller. This is another thing that Les had in common with Maynard Reece; both had their first federal duck stamp designed by Miller. For more on Maynard’s first stamp, see The Making of an Icon – Part Three.

Miller took Kouba’s artwork and used it for the central vignette. He then designed the finished stamp, complete with frame lines, lettering and denomination (face value). Once Miller was finished designing the stamp, it was turned over to the Bureau of Engraving and Printing.

Two engravers were assigned to produce die proofs. The vignette was engraved by Mathew D. Fenton, while the frame lines, lettering and numerals were engraved by George L. Huber. To my knowledge, there are no large or small die proofs in collector’s hands.

The 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp is notable for several reasons. First it was the last stamp to be printed on a single color flatbed press (see Figure 5). Starting with the 1959-60 issue, federal waterfowl stamps were printed on a Giori rotary press capable of printing three intaglio colors from a single plate – thus multi-color stamps.



Figure 5. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp, artwork by Les C. Kouba.



Second, this was the last stamp to have a printed fee of $2.00. Many people have assumed that the fee was raised to offset increased production costs when going from single color to multi-color printing. Starting with the 1959-60 issue, the fee was raised to $3.00 via Public Law 85-585, approved August 1, 1958 (72 Stat. 486).  As you can see, the fee was raised well in advance of any increase in printing costs.

So why was the fee raised? It was raised in response to an extended drought on the prairie breeding groundings that fed ducks into the Central Flyway. The drought led to lower duck production; lower duck production led to lower hunting; lower hunting led to fewer waterfowl stamps sold and would have led to a drastic reduction in revenue without the fee increase.

The Department of the Interior reacted in the same way as many restaurants during the recent recession; faced with a declining number of patrons – they raised prices on the menu in an attempt to keep their gross at the previous level.

Third, the 1958-59 issue was the last printed from a 112 subject format. Once the die proofs were approved, large printing plates were created by duplicating the metal dies 112 times. For Kouba’s stamp, four plates were created, numbers 166753, 166754, 166755 and 166756.

The 1958-59 issue was the last to be cut into panes of 28 with serial numbers printed on the selvage inset two positions from the corner and, therefore, the last federal stamp (aside from the 1964-65 issue) to be collected in plate number blocks of six (see Figures 6).



Figure 6. Complete pane of 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamps. Note this is the upper left pane which was cut from the original sheet of 112 stamps. The plate, number 166755, was one of four used to print Kouba’s stamps.



Messages (often referred to as inscriptions) were printed on the reverse of the stamps with a separate offset press. In October of 2016, a major new waterfowl stamp error was auctioned by Golden Valley Collectibles of Minnesota. The item was an unused corner single of the 1958-59 issue, signed and dated Nov. 21, 1958 by Les C. Kouba in the side selvage.

What made this lot so notable, is that the reverse message was printed inverted in relation to the stamp design on the obverse (see Figures 7a and b). After spirited bidding, Michael Jaffe won the item for his exhibit, A philatelic Survey of U.S. Waterfowl Hunting Jurisdictions.



Figure 7a. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp, corner single signed in the left selvage by Les C. Kouba. Courtesy of Michael Jaffe.



Figure 7b. Reverse of the stamp shown above. Note the printed message is inverted. Courtesy of Michael Jaffe.




1958-59 Usages

Before we look at a couple of usages for the 1958-59 issue, I would like to share a candidate for the smallest signature on a federal waterfowl stamp (see Figure 8). The hunter very nearly succeeded in signing the stamp between the lower right of the design and the perforations!



Figure 8. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp, signed by a hunter in the lower right corner.



By far and away the most extraordinary usage for the 1958-59 issue is on a California license with a 1958-59 Honey Lake waterfowl stamp. Originally one of the crown jewels of Jan Wooton’s extensive fish and game collection, Jan later sold it to me.

It remained in my collection for many years until the Csaplar’s acquired it for their exhibit. There have only been four examples of the 1858-59 Honey Lake stamp recorded (see Figure 9).



Figure 9. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp used with a 1958-59 Honey Lake stamp on the reverse of a California license. Courtesy of the Csaplars.



Another 1958-59 usage of interest combines the federal waterfowl stamp with a 1958-59 Tennessee Trout stamp on a Resident Tennessee Hunting and Sport Fishing License (see Figure 10). The trout stamp was designed by Worth B. Carnahan, the artist who went From Girlie Pulps to Trout Stamps.



Figure 10. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp used with 1958-59 Tennessee Trout stamp on a Resident Tennessee Hunting and Sport Fishing License.



Artist Signed Stamps

In addition to the error shown in Figures 7a and b, I would like to share two more 1958-59 stamps signed by Les C. Kouba. First we have the top plate number single Les signed in the selvage for Alvin Broholm. Les signed the stamp in red ink, which was not unusual for him (See Figure 11).



Figure 11. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp, top plate number single signed by Les C. Kouba for Alvin Broholm.



Second we have an example where Les signed his name on the stamp, itself, and then added a small goose flying above the end of his signature (see Figure 12). Les often personalized his signature by incorporating small ducks or geese.



Figure 12. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp, signed by Les C. Kouba. Note the small goose flying above his signature.



The 1958-59 Federal Print – First Edition

There were three editions of Les Kouba’s Canada geese image. The first edition was a lithograph, pulled from a stone in the manner described in My Favorite Duck Stamp – Part Four. The image was 6.875″ x 9.25″. The litho was drawn by C.W. Anderson, printed in black ink on white paper by George C. Miller and Sons in New York City and was titled and signed by Les C. Kouba in pencil. The print was not numbered but the edition size is known to be 250 (see Figure 13).



Figure 13. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp print, first edition.



According to Randy Herschman (who later went on to manage American Wildlife Art Galleries), Les was not completely happy with the first edition. Although Anderson’s litho stone was faithful to the original art shown in Figure 3, Les thought it looked cropped – especially the wing of the incoming goose closest to the left side of the image.

For this reason, he hired a local artisan, Cornelius Bartels, to engrave a new image on a copper plate for the purpose of producing a second edition with an extended design.


Cornelius Anton Bartels

As this series progresses, we will find that Cornelius Anton Bartels plays an important role. Bartels was born in Holland in 1890. He is now considered to be a dutch master painter whose landscapes, especially those featuring windmills, bring high realizations in European auctions (see Figure 14).



Figure 14. Dutch Landscape with a Windmill by a Lake by Cornelius Anton Bartels. Image courtesy of Lempertz Auctions.



According to another auction catalog description, “As [one of] the last generation of ‘Hague School’ trained artists, his draftsmanship, palette and watercolor brushwork technique is second to none”. Cornelius also learned copper-plate engraving in the Netherlands from master engravers.

Most art historians believe copper-plate engraving originated in Italy. However, some accounts have it originating in the Netherlands even prior to Italy. In any case, the Dutch were very accomplished in this medium and Bartels was no exception.

During the late 1940s, Cornelius and his wife, Minka, moved to Pella, Iowa as refugees from the war in Europe. Cornelius took a position as artist-in-residence at Central Community College in 1950. At Central College, Cornelius taught his fortunate students the classical drawing techniques he had learned in the “School of the Hague”. He also produced etchings in his studio on the campus.

In researching this series of posts, I found an article in The Algona Upper Des Moines (newspaper) from November 4, 1952. In addition to indicating that Minka was a concert pianist, the article is otherwise quite revealing as it concerns our story. It states Cornelius A. Bartels and Jay N. Darling were close friends, that Bartels did many engravings for Darling and that Cornelius and Minka were “moving to Minneapolis soon”.

If you recall from part one of this series, it was in the same year, 1952, that Les expanded his business, changed its name to American Wildlife Art Galleries and began to offer other artist’s work for sale, including Darling’s. As Les and Jay were close friends and did a lot of business together, it seems likely that Jay may have provided Bartels with an introduction to Les when they moved.


The 1958-59 Federal Print – Second Edition

The second edition was produced by Bartels using dry point etching and aquatint. For a detailed explanation of this process, see My Favorite Duck Stamp – Part Four. The image size was 7″ x 9″ and it was pulled using black ink on off-white, Early American paper. The second edition size was the same as the first, 250. After Bartels produced the edition, he delivered the prints to Les, who then titled and signed them in pencil.

In addition to being an etching as opposed to a lithograph, the most obvious difference is that more of the wing is shown on the goose located at the far left of the image (see Figure 15). In the opinion of Les Kouba, this resulted in a more pleasing composition.



Figure 15. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp print, second edition engraved and printed by Cornelius C. Bartels.



The 1958-59 Federal Print – Third Edition

In 1978, Les decided to come out with a third edition for the benefit of the Minnesota Association of Farmers, Landowners and Sportsmen (MAFLAS). MAFLAS was a nonprofit organization and Les was usually willing to help out these kind of groups in any way he could.

The edition was produced using offset lithography and published by American Wildlife Art Galleries. There were 300 regular signed and numbered prints plus 30 artist proofs (see Figure 16). According to Russell Fink, in addition to supplying MAFLAS, Kouba also made third edition prints available to dealers for resale.



Figure 16. 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp print, third edition. Note this is print #1, ex Bill Webster collection.



According to Randy Hershman and Arlen Axdahl, there was also a larger version of this print that was sold by MAFLAS at fundraising events. This oversized piece would not be considered a waterfowl stamp print.



The 1958-59 Design Watercolor

In 2013, Arlen Axdahl attended the Minnesota Decoy Show. He was visiting with Jerry Eppel, who made it known to Arlen that he had access to a large original Kouba watercolor that was essentially a reproduction of the 1958-59 federal waterfowl stamp design. When he returned home, Arlen made some calls and was soon able to find a buyer for the piece.

It currently hangs over the mantle in duck stamp collector Richard Prager’s family room. Richard has kindly allowed me to share the painting with you. The piece is significant in that Les has now further expanded the left side view to include five more incoming geese – making a total of 13 in all and thus representing Les C. Kouba’s artistic trademark (see Figure 17).



Figure 17. Original watercolor painting by Les. C. Kouba. Note there are now a total of 13 geese in the design. Image courtesy of Richard Prager.



Les was very proud to have won the 1957 federal duck stamp design contest. While it was good for his career, it also allowed him to give back – to help make a significant contribution to waterfowl conservation efforts. According to Les:

“As a child I saw firsthand the damage that drought and over-hunting can do to our great flocks of ducks, geese and pheasants. My dad always encouraged us to be conservation-minded. That attitude has always stayed with me. I’m a hunter and I enjoy the sport. However, you cant just take, take, take. You must be willing to give something back to nature”.



Continue to part Three


Leave a Comment