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World class collection is just ducky

Marvin Stanman collects birds that are works of art

Posted: August 29, 2009 4:10 p.m.
Updated: August 30, 2009 4:55 a.m.

Marvin Stanman displays a hand-carved wood duck by artist Jodie Hillman. Hillman and Stanman are friends.

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Some people collect stamps. Some people collect rocks. Marvin Stanman collects ducks.

Stanman's Valencia home is filled with approximately 250 handmade bird decoys, as well as numerous paintings and other bird-centric art.

His interest in these carved creatures began 40 years ago after he had been duck hunting in Kern County.

Since then, Stanman's devotion to his hobby and patronage of the faux fowl craftsmen has not waned. He has even become something of an expert in the trade.

Artist Jodie Hillman, whose art is featured on the New Jersey state duck stamp, makes most of Stanman's birds and is now his good friend. Stanman explained that he was the mastermind behind the Tundra swan depicted on the bottom of all of Hillman's creations.

"I'm the one who told him to start doing it and he did," Stanman said.

Stanman also owns Hillman's very first shorebird. It's a beautiful carving of a curlew with a dove-tailed neck that allows Stanman to pose its head. Hillman made it especially for Stanman and dedicated it to his collection.

All of Stanman's birds are hand-carved and painted; some even boast beautiful poems painted on the bottom.

The great artisans, according to Stanman, make sure their creations are water-ready even if they are made primarily for in-home display.

"All the good birds are hollowed out so that they can float. Then they are weighted at the base with a metal plate so that they maintain their balance and rigged with a leather strap so that they can be towed in the water during duck hunts," Stanman said.

His most valuable and prized birds are incredibly detailed. Some are carved with mussels and starfish in their mouths.

"Sea ducks, that's what they eat," Stanman said.

One Oliver Lawson goose has an open beak complete with a minute serrated edge and fantastically realistic tongue.

Others are crowned with expertly cut hog's hair, which mimics the feathered heads of birds like the red-breasted merganser, Stanman's favorite.

"I think they're pretty," Stanman said.

This unique form of art collecting is a low-maintenance hobby, according to Stanman.

"You just dust them once in a while," he said.

Alas, it is not a cheap one. Stanman said one duck could go for a million dollars at auction, depending on the artist and quality of the piece.

A pair of Sean Sutton ducks, which now reside in Stanman's closet, cost $1,600.

"With the economy today, a lot of people aren't going to pay the price. I pay the price," he said.

Stanman's most expensive decoy is his prized Tundra swan, created, not coincidentally, by Jodie Hillman; he estimated its worth at $4,000.

The pricey bird took two first-place ribbons at a competition in Tom's River, N.J. a few years ago; it also won the title of second best in show at the Delaware River Gaming Decoys competition.

The decoy collecting community is very close-knit, said Stanman. When the decoy makers found out his daughter was having surgery, they immediately called him on the phone and wrote letters of encouragement, even though they had never met face to face.

"They are just sweethearts," Stanman said.

All communication between Stanman and his fellow decoy lovers is conducted through mail and telephone because Stanman doesn't use a computer.

When he commissions an artist to make a new decoy, Stanman requests the artist send him photos of each step of the process.

These photos often come with detailed descriptions of each step written on the back.

Sometimes the craftsmen will even throw in a picture of their family pet assisting in the workshop.

"They are just straight-up people," Stanman said. "They know I pay."

On the East coast, Stanman said, the craft is taken very seriously. Conventions are held frequently and are family events.

Artists show off their wares and share the basics of bird building. There are special areas for young children to paint their own decoys and sections for teens to begin learning to carve their own ducks.

Stanman explained that in the Santa Clarita Valley and West coast in general, most of the population is comprised of "city people" that don't take an interest in duck collecting, so there aren't any conventions or hobby groups in the area.

He would love to change that.

"I would be willing to go to any school and show some of these birds to the kids, because they have never been exposed to it before," Stanman said.

For more information on collecting ducks or viewing Stanman's collection, contact him at (661) 297-9995.

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