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The 2021 Federal Duck Stamp Art Contest was in full swing Saturday on the East Coast when brothers Joe, Bob and Jim Hautman pulled in their decoys from a slough in central Minnesota to wrap up their season-opening hunt.

They bagged just one wood duck by 9 a.m., but the day's biggest prize was still up in the air. As judges zeroed in on finalists, Jim of Chaska and Bob of Delano were tied for first place. It was a showdown between Jim's evocative painting of two redheads bobbing in 3-foot waves and Bob's striking painting of airborne Ross's geese, preparing to land.

Once home, they watched a live video stream from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service to see Jim declared winner and six-time champion of the nation's most prestigious wildlife art competition. Bob, with three titles of his own, finished second. Joe Hautman, a five-time federal duck stamp winner and the eldest of the three, anticipated finishing in the top six.

"It's pretty amazing … I can't believe I've been doing this for more than 30 years,'' Jim Hautman said this week in an interview.

The victory over a field of 137 entries — including a few mock paintings snuck in by British-American comedian John Oliver — sets up another significant payday for the youngest Hautman brother. The 57-year-old career artist from Chaska will cash in all year by selling limited-edition prints and other reproductions of the winning stamp. Sold for $25 each, the stamps double as collectors' items and mandatory add-ons to waterfowl hunting licenses. Each year, the sales raise some $40 million for wetland conservation and wildlife management. Jim Hautman is the first artist to win the contest six times. It began in 1934.

"If you win, you become a publisher, promoter, vendor and a public speaker,'' Hautman said. "I'm no good at any of those.''

Bob Hautman finished in second place this year with this acrylic painting of Ross’s geese preparing to land.
Bob Hautman finished in second place this year with this acrylic painting of Ross’s geese preparing to land.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Art broker Russ Fink of Virginia, a biographer of all federal duck stamp winners, said it's not a surprise that the Hautman brothers have grown to dominate the competition. Not only are they highly skilled painters, but as avid hunters and outdoorsmen they create life-like, intricate designs that resonate with duck stamp enthusiasts throughout the land. They know what people want in a duck stamp, he said.

"The Hautmans are just the cream of the crop,'' Fink said. "I love seeing them win this thing.''

Over the years, the Fish and Wildlife Service has turned to Fink as a consultant for the duck stamp contest and he has seen his share of pretentious winners.

"All of a sudden they've got a halo and they think they're God's chosen people,'' Fink said. "The Hautmans are the salt of the earth. All together they are the nicest group of guys you ever want to deal with and they're good for the industry.''

Under federal duck stamp rules, winning artists aren't eligible to rejoin the contest for the next three years — a reprieve that Jim Hautman said he welcomes. Typically for him, painting an entry for the contest requires a month of deadline painting day and night. "Completely engulfed … it's kind of fun,'' he said. "An excuse to blow everything else off because you're working on something big.''

If the effort brings a win, the achievement demands a year of attention that includes travel, public appearances, media calls and the appreciation of patrons. "I enjoy the 3-year wait because it's an exhausting year,'' Hautman said. When the post-victory dust settles, he's ready to "chill and paint'' at his own pace for two years.

Jim Hautman's latest duck stamp masterpiece flowed from his fondness of redheads. It was one of five species artists could highlight in this year's contest. The others were king eider, blue-winged teal, greater white-fronted goose and Ross's goose.

"The redhead jumped out,'' Hautman said. "I just think they are really cool ducks. That red head is just so striking.''

After toying with a design of three flying redheads, Hautman opted to stage a hen and drake riding on the peak of a wave in churning, greenish lake water. Dark clouds are heaped on the horizon in late afternoon while a sharp angle of sunshine glints off the ducks' faces. They appear to be watching two hunters and a dog, in the distance, heading home in a skiff.

"I was happy with the way it came out,'' he said.

In the sales heyday of wildlife painting, a federal duck stamp design routinely earned the winner millions of dollars. Fink said the market in those years — starting in the mid-1970s — was juiced by speculators who bought multiple prints in hopes of reselling them at higher prices, like stocks. The investment matrix collapsed when the market became flooded with prints.

Hautman said wildlife painting is less lucrative these days but still anchored by a healthy core of dedicated federal duck stamp collectors who traditionally pair a stamp with a limited edition print. Currently, winning artists normally produce 10,500 copies for limited-edition sales. Those prints in the past few years have steadily fetched $185 each, unframed and without a stamp.

The Hautman family's involvement in the scene dates back to the very beginning when the late Thomas "Tuck" Hautman began collecting federal duck stamps in the program's maiden year. Thomas Hautman, an attorney, also tried his hand at wildlife painting. His wife, Elaine, was an artist herself. They also instilled the values of hunting and fishing in their seven children.

Jim said he remembers fall trips to an uncle's cabin on Lake Vermilion where he and his siblings first started hunting ducks at age 16, often on beaver ponds. Starting at age 13, they'd hunt for deer in the area's woods with bows and arrows.

"Our trip in the fall was our highlight of the year,'' he said

The children grew up in the same St. Louis Park neighborhood that gave rise to Hollywood filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen. In the movie "Fargo,'' police chief Marge Gunderson's husband, Norm, is a wildlife artist who — naturally — loses a duck stamp competition to the Hautmans.

"Aww, Hon, you're better than them,'' Marge consoles.

Jim Hautman was 25 when he painted his first federal duck stamp in 1989, making him the youngest artist at that time to ever win. His brother Joe, a physicist, followed up two years later with the family's second winning design. All in all, Joe, Bob and Jim have painted 14 federal duck stamps while showing no signs of quitting. Starting in 2015 with Joe's "Flight of Swans,'' they swept the contest three consecutive years combined with Jim's "Geese at Sunset" in 2016 and Bob's "Mallards" in 2017. This was the first year all three of them were back in the contest together.

"We have our own little rivalry going, so it's fun,'' Joe said.

Finishing in second place in the federal contest — like Bob did this year — is the most painful, Jim said. That's because the runner-up provides no commercial payback while the artist becomes tortured by self-evaluation.

"The reward is pretty much like last place … and you start to second guess the little things that might have put you over the top,'' Jim said.

The brothers have a duck hunting trip planned later this month in North Dakota, a replacement for what had become an annual elk-hunting trip in Montana. The elk hunt lost appeal when grizzly bears attacked other hunters in the same area, Jim said.

He said his next painting project is already underway — a ruffed grouse. He intends to bag one this fall — for table fare as well as a study of the bird's feathers.

"Grouse is a complicated bird … it's a tough one to paint,'' he said.