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American History Sale

Don Johnson | June 21st, 2013

“The Same Old Coon/ Henry Clay and Frelinghuysen” flag, 1844 presidential campaign, previously unknown, printed silk in red, white and blue, 24¼" x 29", $49,350.

Gen. R.E. Lee and Staff by Mathew Brady, albumen photograph, 8¼" x 7" plus mount and frame, $19,975.

Carte de visite of First Lieutenant Holman S. Melcher, Company B, 20th Maine, a unique embroidered 5th Corps Maltese cross sewn to his frock coat, imprint of Wm. Pierce, Brunswick, Maine, $3818.75. It was from the Tom MacDonald collection of Maine Civil War cartes de visite.

Silver and ebony flute that belonged to Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908), a musical prodigy who was born a slave, $14,100.

History of the Northern Pacific Railroad by Eugene V. Smalley, 1883, with 80 tipped-in albumen photographs and 79 individual photographs, each approximately 3" x 3½", plus a letter from the author, $11,750.

Unmarked Lewis-type half-plate daguerreotype camera with bellows that disappear into the box when closed, first incorporated into an American camera by W. & W.H. Lewis of New York, rosewood veneer body, with Jamin/Darlot lens, $10,575.

The Eagle Line illustrated broadside for a stagecoach that left Baltimore daily for southern locations, imprinted date of September 1844, 22¾" x 16¾" plus mat and frame, $10,575.

Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio

Photos courtesy Cowan’s

There was a bit of redemption about halfway through the American history sale conducted by Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati on June 21. The sale had gone well to that point, especially on the strength of the photography and Civil War markets, which often intertwined, but a group of American flags had been flat. Then came something no one had seen before, a Whig political flag from the 1844 presidential campaign.

Lettered with “The Same Old Coon/ Henry Clay/ and/ Frelinghuysen,” the printed silk flag had 13 stars in the canton—a large, central star within a circle of a dozen smaller stars. In the center of the textile was an image of a raccoon (Henry Clay) skinning a fox (Martin Van Buren) strung from a tree branch, with the end of the rope secured to a box lettered “Treasury.” Behind the scene was a river, and on the far shore was the U.S. Capitol building, having a small raccoon on the roof, an American flag lettered “Clay,” and a gentleman on the ground who appeared to be chasing a star. Below the entire image was a verse: “Martin was tried…and found guilty of sinning,/ The coons then decreed to give him a skinning.”

“James Snodgrass &” was stamped in small letters near the canton, while “James Snodgrass Jun.” appeared in the lower right corner. A typed note with the flag claimed it was owned by “James Snodgrass Jr. 1796-1869.” Descended in the Snodgrass family, the 24¼" x 29" flag was consigned out of Dayton, Ohio.

Not listed in Threads of History: Americana Recorded on Cloth, 1775 to Present by Herbert Ridgeway Collins (1979), the definitive source on political textiles, the flag appeared unique. Previously unknown, it hit the market with fervor, aided by its near-excellent condition and vibrant colors. “The guys who are heavily interested in these political flags were interested right away,” said Katie Horstman, Cowan’s director of American history. Immediately shooting above the $10,000/15,000 estimate, it sold for $49,350 (includes buyer’s premium), the high lot of an auction that grossed more than $750,000 on nearly 500 lots.

Otherwise, it was a day largely ruled by photography. The earliest images included two anonymous half -plate daguerreotypes of gold mining scenes. Probably from the early 1850’s and rich with details that included miners and sluicing setups, they sold for $16,450 each. “You can’t go wrong with an outside mining scene. Any outdoor images are desirable to begin with,” Horstman noted.

A half-plate outdoor view of the Erwin, Hunter, and Erwin mill, possibly the earliest surviving image from Hamilton, Ohio, brought $11,162.50. A Southworth & Hawes stereo- daguerreotype of Samuel Gilman Brown (1813-1885), president of Hamilton College, Clinton, New York, from 1867 to 1881, realized $17,625.

Among the Civil War material were several iconic photographs led by Mathew Brady’s Gen. R.E. Lee and Staff at $19,975, while President Lincoln on Battle-Field of Antietam by Alexander Gardner, depicting the president with General George B. McClellan and his staff shortly after the Battle at Antietam, and having some condition problems, sold for $15,275. Scarcity played a role in the bidding. “The last time we offered it was in the last five to seven years,” Horstman said of the Lincoln photo. “You don't see it very often.”

Of special note were images from the Civil War carte-de-visite collection of Tom MacDonald, who specialized in Maine images. The people pictured on the cartes de visite ranged from the famous to the average-Joe soldier, but MacDonald often was able to identify the men and tell something about them. Nearly 100 lots were offered, from individual images to groupings. Those pictured included one of Second Lieutenant Wilbur F. Mower of the 16th Maine, a color bearer at Gettysburg, that sold for $1175, and one of Brevet Major General Joshua Chamberlain of the 20th Maine, who was awarded a Medal of Honor for heroism at Gettysburg, at $4112.50.

“It’s such a focused collection,” said Horstman. “I think the Gettysburg angle was what heightened the amount of interest there was.”

There was another factor. Collectors knew and respected MacDonald. His mail catalog, started in the 1970’s, was eagerly awaited by buyers, and his collection was legendary. Cowan’s cataloger Allen Cebula noted, “The MacDonald Collection comprises over one thousand cartes-de-visite representing every regiment and battery that Maine organized during the Civil War. It is truly a reflection of Tom’s single-minded interest and long dedication to the men of The Pine Tree State…[and is] the largest collection of single state photographs we have ever had the privilege to offer.” More images will be available at Cowan’s American history auction in November.

Six hand-carved Civil War pipes from the collection of Jan Sorgenfrei of Findlay, Ohio, included one representing the Irish Brigade, which sold for $2467.50 and one commemorating the Battle of New Bern, which made $4500.

Miscellaneous historical items that sold throughout the day included a flute belonging to Thomas “Blind Tom” Wiggins (1849-1908), a musical prodigy who was born a slave on a Georgia plantation. The silver and ebony flute bore a gold-engraved nameplate, “Made for Blind Tom By Wm. R. Meinell, New York.” Meinell was one of the top flute makers of the era. Wiggins was known more for his prowess with the piano than with a wind instrument, but an 1887 article in the New York Times followed a bitter custody battle over the musician, whose talents had already earned his handler a fortune, and reported that Wiggins was “returned to his mother’s house with nothing but his wardrobe and a silver flute.” This example, possibly the flute mentioned by the press, sold for $14,100.

“Blind Tom was not known for playing the flute, so we weren’t sure how that would be received,” Horstman said. “If we had a piano presented to him that would be something.”

Other lots ranged from a collection of more than 18,000 cigar labels, representing more than 100 brands, all unused stock of the Cincinnati Box Lumber Company, a division of Frank Unnewehr & Company, early 1900’s, that sold for $18,800, a little more than a dollar per label, to a 1791 broadside announcing the statehood of Kentucky, one of only six copies known, none located in the Bluegrass State, that sold for $9400.

For more information, contact Cowan’s at (513) 871-1670 or visit (

Anonymous half-plate daguerreotype of a forty-niner’s mining scene, four miners at work at several trenches, a sluice box in the center of the view, the photographer having added tinted nuggets to the sluice and a pan, in a full leather case, $16,450.

Collection of more than 18,000 cigar labels representing more than 100 brands, all unused stock of the Cincinnati Box Lumber Company, a division of Frank Unnewehr & Company, early 1900’s, $18,800.

Six Alexander Gardner albumen stereoviews of the Ft. Laramie Treaty, each with an inked manuscript title on reverse, $18,800.

Originally published in the October 2013 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2013 Maine Antique Digest

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