In 2000, Sotheby’s auction house, in conjunction with Guyette & Schmidt,
the leading auction house specializing in the American folk art of early
vintage decoys, sold 10 shorebird decoys, “all stated to have been made by
William Bowman, Lawrence, Long Island, N.Y., last quarter of the 19th
Century.” These shorebirds were most likely made in the first quarter of
the 20th century and definitely not by Bowman, but in fact by a Shinnecock
Indian, Charles Sumner Bunn (1865 — 1952), Shinnecock Reservation,
What may shock those who do not follow decoy auctions is the total price
paid for these 10 birds — $1,028,500 — with the top-selling decoy, a
long-billed curlew, going for $464,500. These decoys have been stated to
have been made by Bowman, a non-Native will-o’-the-wisp, for 39 years,
based on the oral history of the family who donated a large number of
decoys to the Museums at Stony Brook, Stony Brook, Long Island, beginning
in 1958 with a gift of eight decoys, two said to have been made by “Capt.
The discovery of the true maker of these decoys came by accident while
researching for the true maker of another group of decoys and carvings said
to have been made by a Shinnecock Indian, Bunn’s first cousin, Eugene
Cuffee (1866 — 1941). The carvings attributed to Cuffee in fact turned out
not to have been made on the reservation, but were actually made by William
Henry Bennett (1867 — 1954), a non-Native from East Hampton, N.Y., whose
ancestors came from England and first settled on Long Island in 1639.
The research into Bunn began with the discovery of a photograph in John
Strong’s book, “The Algonquian Peoples,” depicting a 1906 sporting exhibit
table piled high with duck decoys that were unmistakably the same duck
decoys that the Herrick family said were made by Bowman, whose faux history
is as substantial as Paul Bunyan’s and filled with just as many facts. It
is a myth, like much of history,and nothing more.
Since our initial discovery of the photo, I and a group of Long Island
decoy collectors have been researching and publishing the results of this
research in Decoy Magazine (November/December 2003, January/February 2004
and July/August 2004), and the Suffolk County Archaeological Association
newsletter (Spring 2005).
The research has been accepted by many, including longtime collector Donal
O’Brien, who has one of the best-known private collections of Bunn
shorebirds and who said he is 100 percent certain that Bunn is the maker of
the decoys formerly attributed to Bowman — without question.
A symposium was held at the Shinnecock Nation Museum and Cultural Center on
the reattribution of both the carvings formerly said to have been made by
Cuffee and Bowman, now known to have been made by Bennett and Bunn. Our
research has not been rebutted with any new or old facts for the claim by
some collectors that Cuffee and Bowman made decoys at all.
If there isn’t any proof for Bowman as the carver, and there is
overwhelming evidence for Bunn, why would anyone not accept the
This is precisely what is happening. Even institutions like the Long Island
Museums at Stony Brook are stonewalling, not only the acceptance of Bunn,
but also the carvings of Bennett. In other words, they are still describing
the carvings made by a non-Native as having been made by an Indian, and
carvings proven to have been made by an Indian they persist to claim were
made by a non-researched, and undocumented, Anglo. The question is, why?
I believe the $464,500 paid for the Bunn shorebird at Sotheby’s in 2000 may
well be the highest price ever paid for Indian art at auction, to date. I
find it ironic that as the Shinnecock Nation continues its 30-year struggle
with the BIA for its long-deserved federal recognition, Shinnecock Indian
Charles Bunn eventually will be hailed as one of America’s greatest Indian
Jamie Reason is a resident of Mastic Beach, N.Y.