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The Safford Swimming Goose Decoy, Charles A. Safford (1877-1957)

The Safford Swimming Goose Decoy, Charles A. Safford (1877-1957)

Item Description:

Charles A. Safford (1877-1957)
Plum Island, MA, c. 1920
31 in. long

Along with Captain Charles Osgood's (1820-1886) (fig. 1) and Nathan Cobb Jr.'s (1825-1905) (fig. 2) geese, Safford's carvings have found their place as some of America's most iconic ganders. With their exceptional forms and unique laminated construction, Safford sculptures capture the eye of decoy and folk art collectors alike. Finding any Safford decoy in original paint is a rarity, as the maker's geese, with their grand size, were designed to spend the entire season out in the marsh.

This decoy, a sleeper, and a few straight-heads are among the only Safford geese in original paint known to exist. The vast majority of Safford decoys are found in rough condition, often with significant cracks and seam separations. This goose, was found in a Newbury, Massachusetts hunting camp, a short distance from Safford’s blind along with a sleeper and two straight heads. One of the straight heads was featured on the Massachusetts Duck Stamp. The owner of the property recalled seeing these decoys in the attic in the 1940s. This example is the best swimmer known to exist, and it relates closely in scale, construction, and surface to its famous sleeping rigmate (fig. 3).

Discussing the lore and legacy of Safford, author and historian Gigi Hopkins writes:

“Although Charles Safford was a member of an old respected family descended from Newburyport’s first English settler, it quickly became evident that as an adult, he had very little use for any restrictions imposed by the proper social life.

"He was schooled locally, proved to be bright and talented, did skilled work with his hands and was drawn to the outdoor life; he was a natural at hunting and shooting. He was small, but wiry and strong, and famous for sculling his sneak float (gunning boat) up-current against the mighty Merrimack River…As a young man, Charlie apprenticed at his great-grandfather’s cabinetmaking shop, Safford and Sons, where he became known for his meticulous craftsmanship...

"Safford had built himself a gunning camp and goose stand at Hale’s Cove on Plum Island, the eight-mile-long barrier beach just south of his hometown. He was now a crack shot, a successful market gunner and a highly sought-after hunting guide. At this point his needs were minimal, and being the gifted craftsman that he was, he could get a job at any firm, including his great-grandfather’s shop or next door at the prestigious Molten Silversmiths. He could create anything in wood from an elegant casket to an elegant seaworthy boat. He worked readily both as a designer and artist in gold and silver (or any other metal). In fact, he quickly mastered any medium to which he turned his attention. He was an inventor as well, employed as a tool maker and machinist when in his forties...

"In the early 1920s, Safford made himself a fine rig of big goose decoys, and designed them to sit three-apiece on flat iron triangles. These spent the hunting season out on the marsh. They were intelligently constructed: the birds’ upright necks were carved from separate blocks that put the grain north-to-south, making them well-nigh unbreakable.

"In 1934, Plum Island, Safford’s home hunting grounds, became a protected bird sanctuary. Happily, Charlie was invited to stay on as the property’s game warden, and he readily accepted the post.

"This change meant that, virtually overnight, Charlie went from gunner to defender of waterfowl. He patrolled his wildlands every day on horseback, or occasionally by car if the weather was foul, and compiled detailed bird lists which Mass Audubon published in its monthly newsletters.

"Eight years on, in 1942, the sanctuary was incorporated into the Parker River National Wildlife Refuge, and Safford, just turned sixty-five, retired and moved down to Lynn, a small coastal city, where he spent the rest of his life with his housekeeper. He kept in touch with his former profession by carving miniature ducks and geese...”

- Special thanks to The Museum of American Bird Art, Mass Audubon, and Massachusetts Masterpieces curator and author Gwladys (Gigi) Hopkins for providing this biographical content.

The head and neck are two joined pieces mounted on a raised neck seat. Comparable head construction, utilizing the directional strength of the wood’s grain, is also seen in the dovetailed geese (fig. 4) and the goose carvings of A. Elmer Crowell (1862-1952) (fig 5.). While not the only maker of laminated bodies (fig.6) this lot's construction is seemingly unique to Safford with numerous laminated layers applied on five planes around the axis of the body’s core block.
Outstanding original paint with even gunning wear, a chip out of the underside of the bill, and a crack along underside of body.

Provenance: Charles A. Safford Rig

Private Collection, Massachusetts

Literature: Gwladys Hopkins, "Massachusetts Masterpieces," Lincoln, MA, 2016, pp. 78-79.

Jay S. Williamson, "Decoys of the Newburys, Plum Island and Surrounding Communities: Catalog of an Exhibition at the Cushing House Museum," Newburyport, MA, 1999, pp. 41-42, rigmate illustrated.

Robert Shaw, "Bird Decoys of North America," New York, NY, 2010, p. 158, sleeping rigmate illustrated.

Massachusetts Waterfowl Stamp, "Canada Goose by Charles Safford," 1998, rigmate illustrated.


Please email condition report requests to Any condition statement given is a courtesy to customers, Copley will not be held responsible for any errors or omissions. The absence of a condition statement does not imply that the lot is in perfect condition.

$ 50000.00 ( Sold Price )



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