I N M E M O R I A M
Co-founder of the Midwest Decoy Collectors Assn.
by Donna Tonelli
Some of today’s decoy collectors may not recognize the name of Ralph Loeff, yet when he passed away on March 18, 2002 our community lost a man who was instrumental in establishing decoy collecting in the Midwest.
One evening in 1965 Loeff, Willis Pennington and Hal Sorenson, over a few drinks and some lively conversation about decoys, decided it would be neat to stage a “gathering” of all the known decoy collectors and decided their brainchild would be known as the Midwest Decoy Collectors Association. There were no better advocates for this undertaking, as both Loeff and Sorenson were both professional advertising men. Loeff ran his own advertising agency with 75 employees, Sears & Roebuck being one of his major accounts. Sorenson was the owner, editor and publisher of Decoy Collectors Guide. Pennington was a plumbing supplies salesman who traveled throughout the Midwest, gathering decoys, information and new collectors wherever he went.
Using the mailing list from Sorenson’s growing publication and Loeff’s and Pennington’s personal connections, invitations were sent out for the first Midwest Decoy Collectors show to be held in Ottawa, Illinois in 1968 and 74 enthusiast attended that seminal event. Now called the National Antique Decoy Show and held annually at the Pheasant Run Resort in St. Charles, Illinois, this show has grown into an international “gathering,” attracting collectors from throughout the United States, Canada and Europe. Ralph Loeff was the last surviving co-founder.
Loeff was a regular contributor to the Decoy Collectors Guide, documenting newly discovered vintage decoy makers and contemporary carvers of the day, including Harold Haertel. His reputation as a knowledgeable decoy collector prompted the organizers of many decoy carving competitions, including the National Decoy Competition held at the Mississippi Valley Fair in Davenport, Iowa, to call on him to judge their events.
In an effort to establish the decoy as a valued part of America’s history, Loeff aggressively promoted decoys. In 1967 the Art Institute of Chicago’s Committee on Decorative Arts voted to accept a selection of 25 classic waterfowl decoys from Loeff’s collection. This prestigious institution, one of the world’s leading art museums, is best known for their important collection of Impressionist paintings. Although Loeff showed a slight bias for Illinois River decoys, his donation included a good representation from all regions, including examples by E.B. Cobb, John Dawson, Charles Walker, Charles Perdew, Jake Uhl, Ira Hudson, the Ward brothers, the Stratford school and notable unknowns from Maine. There were also choice examples from the Mason and Dodge decoy companies and a selection of shorebirds rounded out the group.
Years later, unbeknownst to Loeff, who had moved to Colorado, the Art Institute decided to deaccession the collection he had worked so hard to preserve for future generations, stirring up quite a controversy in the decoy world. Although the event was discussed in length in three separate issues of Decoy Magazine (Nov/Dec 193, Jan/Feb 1994 and May/June 1994), a brief synopsis will forewarn prospective donors to spell out clearly their intentions when donating decoys to any museum.
Jackson Parker first reported the Art Institute’s deaccession of 14 decoys from the Loeff collection, sold at Skinner’s October 30-31, 1993 Americana auction, in the November/December 1993 issue, noting his surprise “that the Institute would deaccess these decoys...and that Skinner could have been so far off in some of their estimates and descriptions.” Although there was no mention of the provenance of the decoys, Parker was able to identify them through pictures in the Decoy Collectors Guide and pointed out that the decoys were underestimated and the lucky buyers got great decoys at bargain prices. What Parker didn’t know at the time was the Loeff was still living, and although he appreciated the Institute’s right to sell the decoys, he was angry that he wasn’t notified.
In a letter to the president of the Art Institute, James Wood, Loeff wrote, “If I had been contacted...I could have doubled or tripled the amount you received.” Apparently the Institute had lost contact with Loeff after his retirement to Colorado, because the Curator of American Arts, Judith A. Baxter, had tried to contact him prior to the sale. Although this misunderstanding was cleared up, Loeff took exception to the Institute’s justification of their decision to sell the decoys. In “the opinion of outside experts consulted, as well as our curatorial staff, is that these objects are not of exhibitable quality,” she wrote in her initial letter.
Loeff wrote back: “Now I don’t dispute the experts’ views that decoys are not ‘fine’ art, but decoys are the only indigenous American folk art....What makes African art or pre-Columbian art or Indian pottery more exhibitable?” Good question!
Speaking with Loeff’s widow, Doris, she marveled at the fun Ralph had collecting decoys, and reminisced how he and Hal Sorenson would jump in the car and drive down the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers looking for more birds to add to the collection. “They would come home with the trunk full, brimming over with wild duck tales to tell,” she said.
Those were the good old days of decoy collecting in the Midwest, and Ralph Loeff was an important part of it all.