Prices for antique ‘display sample’ canoes holding up well

Roger Young

display sample collector
Occasionally, folks ask why prices for antique model canoes are so high in comparison to values for older full-size versions by the same early North American canoe factories. See, for example,, which offers some explanation.

Recently, I was asked to offer some private advice and comment to prospective bidders contemplating the purchase of two very fine Old Town Canoe Co. samples which were up for auction in a Morphy sale, just last week, 29 Oct. 2016. The items offered were of outstanding quality; in fact, they were two of the finest specimens ever to have come along. In the end result, they reached near record prices, and could, in my view, have done even better. It is fair to say that, in spite of recent, sluggish economic times following the catastrophic downturn of 2008, prices for display samples have held up extremely well, and even bucked the trend.

The red model below sold for $27,600; the green model sold for $28,800. Both amounts are inclusive of 20% buyer’s premium. Some important background information should be included here in order to properly appreciate these results. Unfortunately, it was not offered by the auctioneer in its printed sale catalogue. The red sample was actually a 42” model built on a Carleton Canoe Co. form, and had all the usual characteristics of a typical Carleton model – shorter length, heart-shaped decks, carry-thwart, copper bands around the rail ends. It had even originally been painted palm green (a Carleton color), then re-painted in Old Town red and lettered with the OT brand name along its sides. The style of lettering is in the very early manner. It could very well be that this sample was made at Carleton prior to the 1910 take-over by Old Town, then done-over and issued by the new OT owners as one of its own. As a result, it is truly a ‘hybrid’, very unique, and not likely to have been repeated. For a collector of advertising memorabilia, it could represent a ‘two-for-one’ find, something like a mis-printed stamp for a postage collector. For a canoe model collector, it is a very stunning rarity. According to private information, it had previously changed hands at the $30K level.

The green model is simply stunning. In my experience, it is the finest example of its kind yet to come up for sale. It is better than the record-setting example ($29,900) set at the John White auction in 2013. Why do I say this? There is, at the Smithsonian Museum, a green Old Town 4’ display sample, donated to them by Old Town in 1907. That piece has remained protected in a box, out of sunlight and otherwise protected for much of its 110-year history; its condition is, thus, absolutely mint. The green model which sold last week at Morphy’s is as close as one could ever wish to come to the sample in the Museum.

Both buyers are to be congratulated for their astute purchases. These results occurred even though pre-sale estimates were set absurdly low (US$10,000-US$15,00) in comparison to other recent sales. In some instances, auctioneers seem to publish very conservative advance expectations as a way to attract greater bidder attention from potential buyers hopeful of picking up a bargain. Low pre-sale estimates certainly do not deter interest. One has to wonder, though, whether this practice might not also serve to restrain bidder enthusiasm once the estimate levels have been exceeded. After all, these auctioneers are supposedly knowledgeable, and their pre-sale estimates are presented as a supposedly reliable guide of what to expect, or bid. My personal belief, expressed in writing to the auctioneer before that sale, was that both items could easily bring US$25,000, and that a far more realistic pre-sale estimate would have been US$20,000 – US$25,000. As it turned out, I was right. Indeed, I would not have been at all surprised had the final sale prices for those two exceptional examples been another 20% higher. And I fully believe that such results would have been entirely warranted, given the values already established in other leading sales, where the items were of top quality, but still not as good as those in the Morphy sale.

Bottom line: prices for authentic antique display sample canoes continue to hold up well, even in difficult times. It’s the old market place rule of supply and demand, coupled with a willingness on the part of a well-heeled, enthusiastic bidder to spend.


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What a difference a few weeks (and a change in venue) makes .... Barely 2 months ago, I wrote the above comments about strong sales of two 'display sample' canoes which were sold at a Morphy auction in Denver, Pennsylvania, on 29 October, 2016. Now, here I am with rather distressing news about two very weak results of sales from another Morphy auction; this time in Las Vegas, Nevada, last Thursday, January 19, 2017. The former sale saw two extremely fine 4' Old Town samples bring roughly $28,000 each in spirited, competitive bidding. I felt those prices could have gone even higher had the auction house provided potential bidders with all the available information and provenance surrounding those models; they were two of the finest specimens ever to come to market. Strong prices for sample canoes, often above $20,000, have come to be expected in recent times.

The story was dramatically different in Las Vegas, this time, yet the samples offered were again of high quality - the first was a 48" Old Town sample in mint condition, dating to the early 1950's, with a very colorful provenance; the second was a professionally restored 63" Kennebec sample, likely dating to 1916, in very fine condition, and with a reputedly equally romantic history. In this instance, the auction house did supply some, but far from all, of the background information relating to these objects. Both items were estimated to bring $10,000 - $20,000; this was even somewhat higher than the catalog estimates for the earlier PA auction ($10,000 - $15,000). Photos of the two lots are shown below.

Pre-sale interest appears to have been weak; the Old Town sample, Lot 145, listed only one advance on-line bid prior to actual live bidding - a basic opener of $2,500. On sale day, this model struggled to reach $6,000, whereupon it stopped dead. Add on the 20% buyer's premium, and it would seem to have sold for a total of $7,200. Now, I do happen to personally know much of this item's history having once owned it, some years back. It was obtained from the factory by Richard Horrocks Balch, at a time when he was President of Horrocks-Ibbotson, of Utica, NY, world's foremost seller of fishing tackle. Dick Balch also at one time ran for Lt. Gov. of NY state; he was a leading Democrat and friend of Harry Truman. I acquired that model from his grandson (at twice the hammer price, I could add). After it left my hands (at minimal mark-up), it went to a leading antique dealer from Philadelphia, who then flipped it to one of the most elite Atlantic coast galleries, where it was publicly advertised at $28,000, before selling to the collector who recently consigned it to Morphy's. In short, it sold in Las Vegas last week for about 25% of what its previous owner paid out. Ouch!!

The story of the Kennebec sample is equally depressing - no pre-sale interest and rather weak bidding on auction day. The Las Vegas hammer price: $4,250 ($5100 with buyer's premium added in). It, too, was a piece which at one point had passed through my hands. It came to me as a 'wreck'; at the time, it was one of very few Kennebec samples to have surfaced. Its stem bands were broken and partially missing; it was covered in a second coat of badly peeling porch paint, and was somewhat bleached out from sitting in a desert climate where it became filled with sand. Even so, it cost me $6,000 to acquire just to take on the 'rescue' (which added almost as much again to my investment). This was prior to the economic downturn, and sale prices for sample canoes at that point were rising. Professional restoration work returned it to much of its original appearance and enhanced its appeal. It then joined a major collection, after having been on loan for a year to the Canadian Canoe Museum. This was a piece well worth preserving. It even reputedly had had a previous life as a 'prop' in silent movies, which was how and why it came to be found in a California desert in the first place. Alas, its last collector-owner seems to have tired of his model collection. Both the samples in the Las Vegas auction, as well as the two items in the previous Pennsylvania sale, all belonged to the same consignor. The Kennebec sample, Lot 317, like its Old Town counterpart, has now found its way to a new owner at about 1/4 of its previous value. Ouch, again!!!

Was it just one of those 'down days' at auction, where bidders sit on their hands and have no real appetite? Were canoe fanciers asleep? Was it the venue (after all, a desert environment is not particularly suited to canoes)? Or, has the bloom faded from the rose?

Perhaps we'll know more of the answer in a few weeks time (Feb. 9/10th), when a Julia auction, in Maine, offers an opportunity to bid on another early Kennebec (also with restoration) and an early 'unknown-maker' sample of uncertain origin. The Kennebec carries a pre-sale estimate of $10,000 - $18,000; the unknown sample is estimated at $2500 - $4000. Will those figures hold up???

At any rate, there should at least be two very happy and extremely delighted new owners from the Morphy, Las Vegas sale, provided that those 'hammer' prices, as announced, are accurate, and were not subject to 'reserve price' protection (something which I have not, as yet, fully confirmed). Assuming the sales stand as reported, two truly excellent buys were made.


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Responding to Benson's comment (just above) re the Farrin auction and the 48" Old Town model referenced therein, I'm not really surprised at the $4500 winning bid. This was not a particularly attractive piece, having been over-painted and looking rather like a poorly white-washed fence. Appearing otherwise to be fairly solid, it would require some modest refurbishing to dress it up. Still, not a bad buy. My gut feeling, expressed to an interested party just prior to the sale, was that the 'tire kickers' would probably fade from the action by the $2500 level, and that the serious collector/dealers would then likely chase it up to the $5,000 level. So, things went pretty much as expected. In times past, a number of similar items have sold anywhere from $5K to $12K. I understand that it was bought by a well-known Maine antique dealer familiar with such things. Perhaps it will show up again in the near future with an improved appearance, and likely somewhat more highly priced, accordingly.

Yesterday saw the sale of a 63" Kennebec display sample, in a Julia auction, Fairfield, ME. Pre-sale estimates ranged from $12K - $18K. The winning bid just squeaked into the low estimate range; with added buyer's premium, the cost (before tax) is reported as $14,220. That would be a low/average sale value for a Kennebec model which has been repainted and had some modest work done on it as this appeared to suggest. It may not have helped that the original catalog description was somewhat in error and had to be corrected; it was, very quickly and openly, as that auction house does strive to give accurate, sound guidance and has a strong reputation for fairness and reliability. Last year, a similar Kennebec model in fairly equivalent condition sold for $18K. So, the result may have been slightly down, but certainly not as drastic as the prices realized in the Las Vegas auction by Morphy's. More and more, that sale seems to have been a very bleak day for sellers, and a bonanza for buyers. It does happen.

An older, smaller unknown sample (at one time thought by the auctioneer to possibly be a Carleton - but not so), did not sell at Julia's yesterday. Bidding apparently reached $2250, but seems to have failed to meet a reserve. Pre-sale estimate was $2500 to $4000). There again, the original catalog description had a number of errors which were corrected publicly prior to the sale. Weather was also a factor, with a major snow storm the day previous and another one expected to follow.

All in all, the results would seem to fall into the 'average' range, and not necessarily be suggestive of a negative trend.