Purchase Story

Fine and Decorative Arts Auction, Featuring Americana

Cowan’s Auctions, Cincinnati, Ohio

Photos courtesy Cowan’s Auctions

The Kentucky Chippendale secretary desk and bookcase recently sold by Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati, Ohio, for nearly half a million dollars offers a glimpse into the narrow yet highly competitive market for the best furniture from the Bluegrass State. Offered during Cowan’s October 20 and 21, 2017, sale of fine and decorative arts, which featured a strong showing of Americana, the secretary was the top lot of the sale, realizing $498,750 (including buyer’s premium) against an estimate of $50,000/75,000. It was the second-highest auction price ever paid for a piece of southern furniture, according to Cowan’s.

The two-piece walnut secretary featured a broken-arch pediment with sunflower rosettes and three flame finials over two blind doors. The lower section had a slant-front lid over four drawers and ogee bracket feet. The lid concealed a fitted interior complete with a prospect door having a carved fan with pricked outlines and the lettering “MJ 1796.”

The secretary had been commissioned in 1796 by Captain John Cowan (1748-1823, no relation to Wes Cowan), following his rise to frontier prominence. He was born in Chester County, Pennsylvania, and his early career included work with Thomas Bullitt at the Falls of the Ohio in 1773, surveying what is now Louisville, Kentucky. In 1774 John Cowan joined a group led by Captain James Harrod to survey the land promised by the British to soldiers who served in the French and Indian Wars. From Fort Redstone in western Pennsylvania, Harrod’s men descended the Monongahela and Ohio Rivers to the mouth of the Kentucky River, then went upstream to today’s Mercer County, Kentucky. On June 16, 1774, they established Harrod’s Town (now Harrodsburg), the first settlement in present-day Kentucky. John Cowan made his home in the area, and his family lived in the state for generations.

The Warrior by Carl Ferdinand Wimar (German-American, 1828-1862), oil on canvas, unsigned, 47" x 34½" (sight size), period Hudson River school frame with original gilding, inpainting, relined, craquelure, restretched, $78,000.

The catalog noted, “Due to his short-lived career, and also to the fact that many paintings produced in Germany were lost, Wimar’s surviving oeuvre is rather small, including approximately 60 oils on canvas and a small number of sketchbooks and murals, most of which are housed in cultural institutions. Therefore, it is a rare occurrence when paintings by Wimar surface on the market.”

China trade patriotic eagle plaque, 19th century, carved and painted wood, the border featuring relief-carved scenic cartouches with Chinese figures, 13¼" x 16", paint loss, minor chips, age split, $8400.

Kentucky secretary commissioned by Captain John Cowan (1748-1823), dated 1796, walnut, 102¾" high, $498,750 (est. $50,000/70,000).

The auction catalog noted, “While there is no complete biography or family history, records suggest John Cowan was a man of considerable means and political stature.” He held positions as justice of the peace, deputy surveyor, and sheriff. He also served as a captain in the Lincoln County militia and a colonel in the Mercer County militia.

John Cowan married Mary Craig in September 1781, and the couple had seven children. The family’s plantation near current-day Danville was included on John Filson’s first map of Kentucky in 1784, an indication of the significance of the spread. Kentucky tax rolls in 1795 note that John Cowan had 14 slaves, 18 horses, and 60 head of cattle. Only three other residents in his district recorded larger holdings.

With the exception of the years 1775 and 1776, John Cowan lived in the same general area of Kentucky from his arrival in 1773 until his death in 1823. The construction of the secretary in 1796 falls within the middle of that span. “Consequently,” the auction house concluded, “there is little reason to believe the piece was made anywhere but in Kentucky.”

Jin-di-sugi “Lotus” table by John Scott Bradstreet (1845-1914), model 96, cypress, circa 1905, 27" high x 29¾" diameter, original finish, small nicks to the base with old loss of 1½" to edge, age cracks, $54,000. Fewer than ten Lotus tables are known.

Beach scene by Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927), oil on canvas mounted on masonite, signed, 29¼" x 39¼" (sight size), three small areas of inpainting, later frame, $240,000. Genre paintings such as this one were a favorite of Potthast from the turn of the 20th century until his death.

New York coin silver presentation soup tureen made by Marquand & Co., marked, engraved with a wreath enclosing a presentation, “From the family of George Gibbs of Sunswick, / to their esteemed friend Samuel Stevens. / 1838,” 14" high x 16¾" diameter (including handles), minor pitting and scratches, dents to interior and rim of lid, $5700.
The catalog noted, “George Gibbs (1777-1834) was best known as a mineralogist. He assembled the United States’ largest collection of mineral specimens, which was mounted as an exhibition at Yale University in 1805 and eventually sold to the school. Gibbs also had an interest in American painting, and commissioned presidential portraits from Gilbert Stuart, now housed at the National Gallery.
“Samuel Stevens (1778-1860) came to prominence as a Maryland militia captain during the War of 1812. He went on to a notable political career, first as a member of the Maryland House of Representatives and then as governor of that state, serving three terms.”

The maker remains unidentified. The initials “MJ” on the prospect door likely stand for Mary and John (Cowan). According to family tradition, the secretary was made by a traveling cabinetmaker who fell ill and for months was nursed back to health on the John Cowan plantation. Although the validity of that story remains uncertain, the auction house noted, “…the desk could easily have been made locally, by a resident cabinetmaker whose client list included Captain Cowan.” In the waning years of the 18th century, a number of accomplished craftsmen had set up shop in Kentucky. Without question, the secretary was the work of a skilled hand.

The catalog noted, “The fluted quarter columns, inverted shell carving on the prospect door, and the broken arch pediment with ‘sunflower’ rosettes are reminiscent of similar forms made in Southeastern Pennsylvania as early as the mid-18th century. The paneled doors of the upper case, while not characteristic of Pennsylvania, are suggestive of similarly dated pieces from Western Maryland, the Upper Valley of Virginia, and Eastern and Central Tennessee. Whoever made the desk and bookcase was probably trained in one or more of these geographic areas.”

Coin silver equestrian trophy pitcher by Nathan Hazen (1809-1851) of Cincinnati, marked, engraved “Awarded by the / Hamilton County Agricultural Society / to / Allen Trimble / for his horse / Tariff / 1835,” 10" high, $7800.

The catalog noted, “In 1831, following his second term as Ohio’s governor, Allen Trimble dedicated himself to farming and breeding livestock. He helped to found the Ohio Board of Agriculture and was its first president, serving from 1846 to 1848.”

Rice-bird (or bobolink) by George Edwards (English, 1694-1773), watercolor on paper, unsigned, 10" x 8¾" (sheet size), gilt frame, toning and stains, $21,600. The bird pictured is native to North America. Edwards, known as the father of British ornithology, never visited America. He likely created the painting from a specimen sent to Europe.

Regina model 35 automatic changer music box with clock and original leaded-glass door, American, circa 1900, mahogany finish, 15½" discs, 67½" high x 27" wide, excellent condition with original finish, with hand crank and 12 discs, $27,600.

First mentioned in John Cowan’s 1823 estate inventory as a “desk and bookcase” with a value of $30, the secretary passed through the family for six generations before its acquisition by a non-relative in 1996. When offered by Cowan’s, the secretary’s $50,000/70,000 estimate was considered conservative.

“I figured it had to sell for a hundred and fifty thousand dollars,” said Wes Cowan, founder of the auction house. “It blew by a hundred and fifty thousand in thirty seconds.”

The selling price took a lot of people by surprise. “Two institutions were involved in the bidding. One was prepared to go to two hundred thousand. They didn’t see it coming either,” he added.

Not everyone was left drop-jawed. Cowan suggested that the buyer expected the price to reach the level it did. “He said, frankly, if you had an inlaid Federal secretary desk by William Campbell, another Kentucky furniture maker from a later period, it would have brought the same price. It is not a national market. It is a local market from a handful of devoted and passionate regional collectors.”

“Map of the Western Reserve Including the Fire Lands in Ohio,” American, circa 1826, paper mounted on linen, watercolor decorations, engraved by William Savery of Pittsburgh and published by William Sumner of Nelson, Portage County, Ohio, in September 1826, first edition, 34¾" x 27", tears, scattered splits, losses to vignette areas, $15,600. The embellishments include floral sprigs; a shepherdess; a portrait titled “Queen Elizabeth”; a basket of strawberries; an interior scene with six women identified as Peace, Plenty, Justice, Liberty, Religion, and Hope; and a woman seated in a landscape with buildings, a body of water, and a ship in the background.

George Washington on the battlefield at Trenton, New Jersey, after John Trumbull (1756-1843), oil on poplar panel, unsigned, 35½" x 24¾" (sight size), inpainting, restoration to paint cracks, touchups to the gilt frame, $31,200. The painting descended in the family of Abraham Bradley, Jr. (1767-1838), who originally acquired the work around 1800. Bradley served as assistant postmaster general from 1799 until 1829.
“When you think about it, the guy who was the assistant postmaster probably knew George Washington. That’s how small the community was then. He probably had the painting made to celebrate the friendship,” said Wes Cowan.

Queen Anne highboy with inlaid fans and compass roses, Boston, 1740-50, walnut, 84" high x 40" wide, old finish, hood lining replaced, reinforced age split, brasses possibly replaced, $45,000. The piece is one of a small number of inlaid highboys made in Boston during the mid-18th century.

The biggest wild card in the bidding was the regional attribution. “It’s a reflection of where rarity and history and provenance all come together in the perfect storm,” said Cowan. “If this desk did not have the provenance with it, it’s a nothing desk; it’s a fifteen- or twenty-thousand-dollar desk, maybe. With the provenance and with the fact that we know it was made in Kentucky, and you couple that with the passion of regional southern collectors, that’s all it took. This was the opportunity to buy ‘it.’ There was never going to be another opportunity. If there were other pieces like this in existence, for the Kentucky collectors who are passionate and spending a lot of time looking for this material, it would be known by now.”

The secretary joins an extremely short list of furniture from the earliest days of Kentucky. Even then, it broke a few rules.

Before the auction, several people told Cowan that the secretary didn’t fit within the usual parameters of early Kentucky furniture—Federal style in cherry with lots of inlay. Then again, outside of a few clocks, no one had seen a piece of Kentucky furniture this early.

Cowan said it was suggested to him that “the Kentucky guys might struggle to get too enthusiastic about it.” That clearly wasn’t the case.

Despite having no way to prove that it was actually made in Kentucky, Cowan was convinced, especially after sifting through family wills and other paperwork. “If there was ever an object I’ve had in twenty-some years in my business, this was an object I really believed in. It was from one of the guys who was one of the founders of one of the earliest settlements in Kentucky.”

The secretary wasn’t the only piece of American furniture to bring strong interest. Among the traditional forms, a 1740-50 Boston Queen Anne highboy in walnut with inlaid fans and compass roses, a rare form with only three other examples known, according to Cowan, sold for $45,000, and an early 19th-century New Hampshire Federal bowfront chest of drawers in mahogany and flame birch with crossbanding and inlay topped at $20,400. A jin-di-sugi“Lotus” table in cypress by John Scott Bradstreet (1845-1914), circa 1905, realized $54,000.

Unpainted finishes dominated the highest-selling furniture, a point that Cowan was quick to note. “I’m so tired of talking about brown furniture and how nobody wants it. It’s become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” he said. Not this time. He joked of taking out an advertisement stating, “Cowan’s is down with brown. We love brown furniture.”

Paint was better left to the artwork on offer, led by a beach scene by Edward Henry Potthast (1857-1927), an oil on canvas mounted on masonite that sold for $240,000. The work had the sale’s highest estimate, $300,000/500,000, but it was also offered at a time when Potthast’s paintings have dropped in value. According to Cowan, an earlier owner paid $900,000 for the scene, which later remained unsold when offered at Sotheby’s in 2007 (est. $900,000/1,400,000).

The painting had been donated to a church, which failed to find a buyer through a private dealer. It was then consigned to Cowan’s and eventually sold without reserve. “We did just fine,” said Cowan. “I’m happy. The church is happy. That’s all that matters.”

Other items of interest ranged from a circa 1900 Regina model 35 automatic changer music box with a clock above the leaded-glass bowfront door ($27,600) to a coin silver equestrian trophy pitcher made by Nathan Hazen (1809-1851) of Cincinnati and presented in 1835 to Allen Trimble, a former governor of Ohio ($7800).

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

Originally published in the February 2018 issue of Maine Antique Digest. © 2018 Maine Antique Digest

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