During this time of quarantine, a lot of us may be catching up with our never-ending movie queue. If yours included the 1996 crime-film classic Fargo, you may have noticed a minor stamp-related subplot: Norm Gunderson, husband of main character Marge Gunderson, is hard at work on a painting that he’ll enter into a stamp design competition (he comes in second place). This minor plot detail actually carries a lot of history behind it - and if you have one of these pieces in your collection, you might already know about the importance of the Federal Duck Stamp competition!
History of the Duck Stamp
Mallards by Jay N. "Ding" Darling, 1934-1935 Stamp, the first Duck Stamp ever. "Ding", a cartoonist and conservationist, was instrumental in the creation of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp. Courtesy U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service.
The history of the Migratory Bird Hunting Stamp, more commonly known as the "Duck Stamp," goes far beyond Fargo, North Dakota. It’s actually a government-sponsored program signed into law in 1934, that attracts wildlife artists from all over the world in a yearly competition since 1949. Each winning duck stamp is sold with 98 cents of every dollar benefitting the Migratory Bird Conservation Fund. The program is highly successful - as not only is the stamp purchased by collectors, the stamp also doubles as an annual pass for hunters entering national wildlife refuges.
While the contest does not reward each year’s winner with a monetary prize, the real reward is that of the fame achieved from winning - becoming widely renowned amongst the wildlife art community. The documentary film Million Dollar Duck examines this aspect of the competition, and the fame achieved by winning. Director Brian Golden Davis told Indiewire, “Once you become a Federal Duck Stamp winner, you’re going to get so much more patrons to your art that it kind of increases everything. If you go to any wildlife artist bio page, no matter what year they won, even if it’s in the ‘60s or ‘70s, the first line will be ‘a Federal Duck Stamp winner.’ It’s still the most important, biggest prize that there is in the wildlife art world.”
A Family Dynasty
The most obvious connection Fargo has to the Duck Stamp is stated at the very end of the movie, when Norm Gunderson tells his wife that his duck painting came in second place for the 3-cent stamp, but, "Hautman's blue-winged teal got the 29-cent." This is a reference to the Hautman brothers, three real-life legends in the Duck Stamp world. Fargo filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen are very familiar with them, having grown up a few doors down from the family in St. Louis Park, Minnesota.
The Hautman Brothers - Joe, Bob and Jim - have created a family dynasty through the Duck Stamp competition, with one of the three brothers winning 13 times in the past 30 years. In 2015, they made history by sweeping the competition in first, second and third place. The odds were certainly against Norm Gunderson in 1987, when the movie took place. However in real life, the 1987-88 stamp was not made by a Hautman brother, but was instead this Snow Goose by Daniel Smith. The first Hautman win didn't come until the 1990-1991 competition, when Jim Hautman won for his portrait of Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks.
Upcoming Competition and Duck Stamp Events
The submission period for the upcoming Duck Stamp competition begins June 1, 2020, and ends at midnight on August 15, 2020. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service detailed the guidelines for this year's competition, including the species and theme for the 2021-2022 stamp. The winner will be unveiled in De Moines, Iowa at Drake University from September 25th-26th.
The 2020-2021 stamp will go on sale June 26th, in Spanish Fort, Alabama. Alabama is also the home state of Eddie LeRoy, the winner of last year's Duck Stamp competition with his portrait of two Black-Bellied Whistling Ducks.
Collecting Duck Stamps
While Duck Stamps are most purchased by hunters who use them for their yearly permits, the Duck Stamp's rich history makes each year's stamp a collector's item. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service lists different ways collectors may purchase their own Duck Stamps, including The APS' own Stamp Store, where previous years' stamps may be bought and sold from other collectors.
While the Duck Stamp world may not be as literally cutthroat as the movie Fargo, the Coen brothers decided to add a nod to it in their movie, maybe leading us to believe that Marge was as stressed solving murders as Norm was painting a duck!