It's like winning the lottery.
Over and over again.
When Joe Hautman won the 2011 federal duck stamp contest this fall with his painting of a wood duck, it continued a most remarkable streak. Minnesota's three Hautman brothers -- Joe, Jim and Bob -- now have won an unprecedented 10 of the past 21 highly prized federal duck stamp contests, including three of the past five.
They are the New York Yankees of wildlife artists.
"It's beyond belief,'' said Bill Webster, 86, who founded Wild Wings gallery in Lake City in 1967 and has promoted wildlife art for decades. "They are just extremely talented.''
No family has dominated the stamp contest like the Hautmans since it was launched 62 years ago. Maynard Reece, an Iowa artist, has won five times -- the last in 1971. That's the most anyone has won. But two Hautman brothers are closing in on that mark.
Joe, 55, of Plymouth, has won it four times -- 1992, 2002, 2008 and 2012 -- including the last two times he entered. Brother Jim, 47, of Chaska, also is a four-time winner -- 1990, 1995, 1999 and 2011.
And Bob, 52, of Delano, has won twice -- 1997 and 2001. He finished runner-up last year to brother Jim.
The Hautmans seem to be in a league of their own, but you wouldn't know it talking to them.
"I think we've been lucky,'' Joe said the other day. "The last two times I won it was on tiebreaking votes. The first time I won, I wasn't even doing it [painting] professionally.''
Sure, and the Yankees' 27 World Championships were luck, too?
"They are being modest,'' Webster said. "The fact that they have won so many times -- I wish I could say there was a trick to it, but it's just talent. They just keep on winning.''
The Hautmans say there is friendly competition among them, but each will critique the work of the others to help them achieve the best possible artwork.
"We're definitely competitors, but in a friendly kind of way,'' Joe said. "I would have been happy to see Bob win. It's such a fun thing for us to do and to be involved with because of the conservation and hunting connections.''
The three are hunters, as was their dad.
Future of stamps?
Winning a federal duck stamp contest isn't as lucrative as it once was. Artists get no compensation from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, which conducts the contests. But artists make money by selling prints of the winning stamps to collectors.
"It's not like the old days,'' Joe Hautman said. "They used to say you're a millionaire if you win.''
Winning is still financially lucrative, he said, but the demand for such artwork has declined, along with the number of duck hunters.
And the future of wildlife stamps is uncertain.
Minnesota also holds contests for five different state wildlife stamps -- duck, pheasant, turkey, trout and walleye -- but since 2007, hunters haven't been required to buy the actual stamps. Instead, they can buy stamp "validations'' on their hunting or fishing licenses.
Since then, sales of the physical stamps have fallen dramatically. The state sold 330,000 in 2006 but fewer than 30,000 so far in 2011. Just 11 percent of the 89,000 state duck stamps sold this year were the actual stamps.
Still, the state stamps and contests aren't likely to fade away soon. State law requires them, meaning the Legislature would have to kill the stamps. So far, lawmakers have been unwilling to do that.
"If the stamps go away, it will be a sad day for artists,'' said John House of Melby, Minn., a five-time state stamp winner. "The stamp competition is an opportunity to distinguish yourself. I'm forever grateful for the opportunities.''
Meanwhile, the federal Fish and Wildlife Service also has launched a pilot program that allows waterfowl hunters to buy the $15 federal stamps online. The "electronic stamp" is good for 45 days while the printed stamp is mailed. After 45 days, hunters must possess the actual stamp to legally hunt waterfowl.
"The federal stamp is a cherished tradition,'' said Rachel Levin, Fish and Wildlife Service spokesperson. "We don't have any plans for doing away with the printed stamp.''
The federal contest attracts 200 to 300 entries, she said. Next year will be the 80th anniversary of the stamp, which has generated more than $750 million to buy or lease more than 5.3 million acres of waterfowl habitat.
Artists can't enter for three years after they win, so both Joe and Jim Hautman will be on the sidelines, rooting for brother Bob to pull off another win for the family. It would be the third consecutive Hautman win.
What are the odds of that?
Don't bet against it.
Doug Smith • firstname.lastname@example.org