Trash or Treasure: Collector’s Spotlight -- Unusual collection 'just ducky'

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News
Mark Leebove  shows off several mud ducks from his collection.

Mark Leebove credits his grandmother with the start of his unusual collection. “She kept a journal and talked about them in it,” he explained at a recent appraisal session, where he showed off a few members of his ever-expanding flock. “My mother got them when she died. They should have gone to my sister but ended up with me.”

“They” include more than 100 blue Chinese mud ducks, some of which belonged to his grandmother, the others found online or at shops through the years. His grandmother may have started the collection, but Leebove is now a willing participant, scouring online and brick and mortar shops for the unusual and charming items.

“Through the years they came to represent family members,” he told appraiser Brian Thomczek at a recent session held at the Michigan Design Center in Troy, where he showed off a few of his extensive collection. According to Leebove and the appraiser, they range in age, with older ones of a darker hue and sporting a mark on the bottom, but many unmarked. Of the ones he brought in, the older ones were worth about $100 each, the newer and smaller ones about $70, Thomczek said. Leebove says he sometimes pays $30 for “a whole flock” but seldom pays more than $50 for a single specimen. “I’m obsessive,” he admits. “These are just something I’ve started collecting for fun.”

As part of our occasional series about metro Detroit antique enthusiasts, we caught up with him to ask a little more about what he collects and why.

When did you start collecting?

I started collecting after my mother died. My sister said the ducks came to America to Detroit they should stay in Michigan. I got serious about collecting when someone sent me a small duck since I already had some. That really started me off looking in resale shops, estate sales, you name it. Then I found them on eBay. Many were overpriced but more often than not I could negotiate a better, more realistic price.

What’s the attraction?

Just personal taste. I have not done extensive research but what I do know is they were created for the export market. I also learned many were branded with a paper tag “China.” The tag was easily removed and I believe it was used to get around import restrictions against China. Most of mine are from the late 1940s after WWII.

How can you tell the difference between old and new?

The base is also a sign of age. Flat with a small hole seems to be newer than the open base of others, but both are originals. I look for any Cantonese or other Chinese markings pressed into the bottom of the base.  

Do you have a favorite?

I would say my favorites are the original ducks (from my grandmother).  They hold a real sentimental place in my heart.

Where do you display them?

They are displayed pretty much all over the house -- usually in four or more of the same size. 

Where do you find your treasures?

EBay has been the go-to place for me. Many dealers see “China” stamped on the bottom and place an unrealistic value on the birds.

Advice for other collectors?

Be selective, pay what you feel is a fair price and don’t get caught up in the bidding frenzy. Know your limits and stick to them…eBay dealers try to get $100 plus but I believe they are just dreamers.

How many do you have?

I now have 128…they seem to breed like Canada geese.