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American History

Don Johnson | November 15th, 2013

Mary Ann Moorman’s Polaroid photograph of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, also with a Polaroid photo of a motorcycle officer, sold to a private collector after the auction for $45,000. “We wanted them to go to an institution, but no institution was interested,” said Wes Cowan. “Part of the problem is that these have been widely circulated.”

Gen. Thomas J. Jackson, C.S.A. by Mathew Brady, albumen photograph, 8 1/8" x 6", plus the original mount having a “Brady & Co. Photographers” imprint, $7637.50. The image was taken in April 1863, just a few weeks prior to the Battle of Chancellorsville, when Stonewall Jackson was accidentally shot by his own troops; he later died of complications. The catalog noted, “Although this portrait is the most widely published wartime image of Jackson, often appearing in carte format, this is an extremely rare, large format example.”

Gen’l Robt. E. Lee and Staff by Mathew Brady, albumen photograph showing Lee (seated) with his son, General George Washington Custis Lee, on the right, and Colonel Walter Taylor on the left, taken at Lee’s Richmond home on Franklin Street in April 1865, not long after Appomattox, 9½" x 7¼", plus printed mount and period frame, $9400. The catalog noted, “Mathew Brady made six negatives on the occasion, all are seldom encountered.”

The War Between the United States and Mexico Illustrated by George Wilkins Kendall, 1851, having 12 color plates and a black-and-white map of army operations in the Valley of Mexico in 1847, $8225.

Map of the Great Lakes region, issued just before the French and Indian War, illustrating forts, missions, settlements, Indian tribal territories and villages, and the area claimed by France, one of the first maps to locate Chicago, printed in French, “Partie Occidentale de la Nouvelle France ou du Canada,” this version published by Homann Heirs, on two sheets (as issued), 17½" x 21½" (plate), $4112.50.

Thirteen-star flag, cotton, one stripe inscribed in ink “Mrs. Byron Fay” and what appears to be “1861,” 49" x 75", $11,750.

Lincoln & Hamlin flag banner in red, white, and blue printed cotton with “Wide Awake” over a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the canton in the upper-right corner, 11" x 17", $44,650.

Six-color broadside for the sale of Missouri lands by the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, 1866-68, 27¾" x 22", vibrant colors, $19,975.

Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio

Photos courtesy Cowan’s

The biggest story of the American history sale held by Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, on November 15, 2013, wasn’t what sold, but what didn’t—at least not initially.

Drawing considerable press coverage before the auction was a Polaroid photograph of the assassination of John F. Kennedy taken by Mary Ann Moorman. The lot also included an image of a motorcycle cop who was part of the president’s motorcade through Dallas on November 22, 1963. The police officer was inconsequential. The item of significance was the photo of Kennedy, snapped as Lee Harvey Oswald’s first shot struck the president. The photo has been widely published over the past five decades.

“I felt in terms of iconic newsworthy photographs of the twentieth century, this photograph has to be right up there,” said Wes Cowan, president of the auction house. “It has to be one of the most important pieces of photojournalism of the twentieth century.”

Offered at Cowan’s one week before the 50th anniversary of the assassination, Moorman’s photo drew international attention. However, it wasn’t the first time the photo had been on the market. Simpson Galleries of Houston handled the image in January 2008, when the Polaroid, then estimated at $250,000/500,000, failed to make its reserve.

At Cowan’s, the photo came with a lighter estimate, $50,000/75,000. In a way, the media showed more interest than did potential buyers. Articles about the auction appeared in USA Today and the New York Times prior to the event, and the photo was featured on The Today Show the morning of the sale. But that’s where it ended.

“We got no interest,” said Cowan. “Whether it’s because of the nature of the photographs or whether it’s because of their condition, I don’t know. But I told Mary Ann from the very beginning it would take a special person to want to buy these photographs. These are not Kennedy’s rocking chair or the scrimshaw whale’s tooth that sat on his desk or his jacket—things that he personally touched, that belonged to him.”

Condition was a major factor. After half a century, the images had faded considerably, and the assassination photo was marred by a conspicuous fingerprint. Cowan knew condition was an issue, but he agreed to take a chance on the photos, in part because of what they represented.

“This is sort of the beginning of the citizen photojournalist. Mary Ann Moorman happened to be in the right place at the right time with a Polaroid camera, just like [Abraham] Zapruder was there with his movie camera,” he said. “She and Zapruder scooped everybody. From that standpoint I thought, let’s give it a shot, let’s see what happens, let’s market these and sell these in spite of their condition. You’re buying their historical significance. You’re not buying wall power. You’re not buying something pretty.”

Although the photos failed to sell, the auction house’s phone began ringing a few days later. “We had interest from several places,” said Cowan. “The first person to firmly commit, we took the offer to Mary Ann, and she said, ‘Let’s do it.’” The photos sold for $45,000 the pair (with buyer’s premium) to a private collector.

“He’s not a JFK collector; he’s an art collector on the West Coast,” Cowan added. “He just happened to be of the generation of JFK and thought these to be worthy of preserving and wanted to have them.”

Related to the assassination was an original White House version of an open-reel audio tape of radio traffic involving government and military officials in the hours after the assassination, including Air Force One in flight from Dallas to Andrews Air Force Base. Estimated at $40,000/60,000, it did not sell.

The tape was discovered among the papers and memorabilia of Army General Chester “Ted” Clifton, Jr. (1913-1991), who served as military aide and de facto chief of staff to President Kennedy. Clifton was in the Dallas motorcade during the assassination and aboard Air Force One afterward, being involved in the recorded discussions. He was in charge of military and national security affairs in the aftermath of the assassination. The catalog noted, “This is the only original of the historic tape in private hands; the other original was donated by the consignor to the National Archives in January 2012, and resides in the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection.”

The no-sale of the tape likely had to do with its availability elsewhere. “It’s part of the public record,” said Cowan. “The National Archives has a copy of these tapes.” The entire recording can be heard at several sites on line.

Kennedy material as a whole draws lackluster interest from collectors. Unless of great historical significance, such as Moorman’s Polaroid, most related photographs have minimal value. “They’re wonderful, and the history behind them is what drives that value,” said Katie Horstman, Cowan’s director of American history. “When you look at photos taken during his life and career, even on that day, a lot of them don’t bring major prices. A lot of people were taking pictures back then.”

Moving away from the Kennedy lots, the auction did well as a whole, according to Horstman. The sale realized more than $650,000 on about 460 cataloged lots.

“The main area that we were extremely pleased with was the Civil War photography section and military photography. That part of the sale proved to be one of the strongest,” she said.

The best of the Civil War images was Gen’l Robt. E. Lee and Staff by Mathew Brady, an albumen photograph showing Lee, his son, General George Washington Custis Lee, and Colonel Walter Taylor outside of Lee’s Richmond home in April 1865. The image sold for $9400, just under the low estimate. In June 2013 an example of the photo brought $19,975 at Cowan’s. Earlier photography included a flurry of good sixth-plate daguerreotypes, including one of a fisherman displaying a large muskie on a five-pronged spear, selling for $4406.25; a young man posed with a steam piano, $3600; and a gold miner wearing a straw hat, $4112.50. A half-plate ambrotype of a gold-mining scene, the outdoor image showing nine miners and a water wheel, topped at $7050.

Two other gold-mining images, both tinted, came with high expectations, estimated at $50,000/75,000 each, but failed to sell. One was a full-plate ambrotype of a California gold miner, while the other was a half-plate daguerreotype by George H. Johnson of Sacramento, California, showing five miners next to a sluice and rocker. “You only have a handful of people able to afford that type of photograph,” Horstman noted.

There was no hesitation in the bidding for the top flag of the day, an 11" x 17" political piece lettered “Lincoln & Hamlin” across the red and white stripes and “Wide Awake” over a portrait of Abraham Lincoln in the canton, which was located in the upper-right corner. The printed cotton banner sold for $44,650, nearly tripling its upper estimate.

From the estate of Kenneth Erwin of Michigan, the flag had what collectors wanted. “It’s Lincoln. It’s his portrait. It’s Wide Awakes,” said Horstman. “What more could you want?”

Maps included a map of Mexico in Spanish translated as Map of the United States of Mexico, Organized and Defined According to Various Acts of Congress of the Republic and Based on the Best Authorities. It was by John Disturnell, printed in New York in 1846, and realized $23,500.

Among the ephemera was a six-color broadside for the sale of Missouri lands by the Hannibal & St. Joseph Railroad, with “Missouri Is Free!” in patriotic lettering at the top and promoting “500,000 Acres of the Best Prairie, Timber and Coal Lands in the West!” Dating to about 1866-68 and in vibrant colors, the 27¾" x 22" poster sold for $19,975. The catalog noted, “We could find no other example of this broadside.”

In large part, that’s what it took for the top lots of the day—quality and rarity.

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

Originally published in the March 2014 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2014 Maine Antique Digest

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