Cowan’s sets auction record for Kentucky furniture masterpiece

Kentucky furniture

The Kentucky secretary-bookcase once owned by Capt. John Cowan (1748-1823) sold for a record $498,750. Cowan’s Auctions image


CINCINNATI – The most significant piece of Kentucky furniture to ever come to market shattered the record for furniture made in the Bluegrass State when it sold for $498,750 at Cowan’s Auctions on Oct. 21. It was the top lot of an exciting two days at Cowan’s Fall Fine & Decorative Art Featuring Americana Auction that saw prices soar across most categories, propelling the sale to a $1.8 million total (including buyer’s premium). Absentee and Internet bidding was available through LiveAuctioneers.

In addition to setting the new standard for Kentucky furniture, it was also the second most expensive piece of Southern furniture ever sold at auction. This was the first time the desk had been available to the public in over 220 years after remaining in the family of Kentucky pioneer Capt. John Cowan for six generations.

“We’re thrilled,” said Wes Cowan, Cowan’s principal auctioneer and executive chairman (no relation to Capt. John Cowan). “But more importantly, the piece demonstrates conclusively that the market recognized this as an incomparable rarity. For scholars of Kentucky furniture, it is validation for what some have said for years: that great high-style furniture was being made in the 18th-century Bluegrass region.”

A capacity crowd packed Cowan’s Cincinnati salesroom as the desk came to the auction block. Conservatively estimated to sell between $50,000 to $75,000, bidding opened with five phone bidders at $30,000. Perhaps knowing that the desk would ultimately fetch far more, one phone bidder immediately jumped the bidding to $100,000. However, a floor bidder finally won out, winning the coveted piece of history for $425,000. The addition of a buyer’s premium made the grand total $498,750.

Capt. John Cowan (1748 – 1823) was one of the first settlers of Kentucky in 1773 arriving with Thomas Bullit at the Falls of Ohio where he helped survey the land that is now Louisville. A year later, he was one of the founders of Harrod’s Town, the first permanent European settlement in Kentucky. By 1784, Cowan was a prominent enough citizen that his plantation was labeled on John Filson’s map of Kentucky, one of the first maps of the territory. At the top of that first map, Cowan, alongside Daniel Boone and four others, was acknowledged for his assistance in constructing what was said to be the most accurate Kentucky map of its time.

Enthusiasm for furniture wasn’t just limited to the Cowan desk and bookcase as bidding was robust across the category on both days making up over $880,000 of the sales’ $1.8 million total. A John Scott Bradstreet jin-di-sugi “Lotus” table fetched the second highest price of the day for a piece of furniture when it sold for $54,000. Fewer than 10 examples are known. Circa 1905, the ornately carved pedestal table is made of cypress and measures 27 inches high by 29 3/4 inches in diameter.


Kentucky furniture

Rare jin-di-sugi Lotus table by John Scott Bradstreet (American, 1845-1914), circa 1905, cypress. Price realized: $54,000. Cowan’s Auctions image


Other furniture highlights included a scarce Boston Queen Anne high chest with inlaid fans and compass roses, which sold for $45,000; a rare Regina Model 35 auto changer disc music box with clock and original leaded glass door for $27,600; a fine New Hampshire Federal flame birch bowfront chest of drawers for $20,400; a Queen Anne Bermuda cedar tea table for $10,800; and a New England Chippendale camelback sofa for $9,840.

Furniture was by no means the only hot category for the auction, though. Fine paintings saw much interests during both days making up five of the top 10 lots of the sale. The top lot of the sale was an exceptional beach scene by Edward Henry Potthast (American, 1857-1927), which sold for $240,000. Having a sense of movement and punctuated with vibrant color, the work depicts people of all ages on a busy New York beach, a subject popular with Potthast from the turn of the 20th century until his death. The painting represents a crucial phase in Potthast’s career. Freed from the more academic influence of the artist’s Munich training, the beach scene denotes a loosening of his brushstrokes and a brightening of his palette, echoing the cheerful demeanor of the beachgoers.


Kentucky furniture

Edward Henry Potthast (American, 1857-1927), ‘Beach Scene,’ oil on canvas laid on Masonite. Price realized: $240,000. Cowan’s Auctions image


“It’s a great staple of his overall work, and it has all the features you want in a beach scene by Potthast – numerous lively figures, bright colors, and a great size,” said Pauline Archambault, Cowan’s fine art specialist. “This is a particularly good example. While it’s fairly common to see smaller works and landscapes by Potthast to come to market, it’s pretty rare for a really great, vibrant piece like this to become available.”

An oil on canvas entitled The Warrior by Carl Ferdinand Wimar (German-American, 1828-1862) started off day two of the auction with a bang when it sold for $78,000. Due to Wimar’s short career, and due to the loss of many paintings created in Germany, the surviving oeuvre is rather small, including approximately 60 oils on canvas and a small number of sketchbooks and murals.


Kentucky furniture

Carl Ferdinand Wimar (German-American, 1828-1862), ‘The Warrior,’ oil on canvas. Price realized: $78,000. Cowan’s Auctions image


“It’s a true rarity when one of Wimar’s paintings surfaces on the market,” said Archambault. “Most of the paintings known to exist are in institutions. Very few are in private hands so it’s not a surprise that bidders jumped at the opportunity to get their hands on this piece.”

Other notable fine paintings from the auction included a portrait of George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey, after John Trumbull (American, 1756-1843) that sold for $31,200; George Edwards (English, 1694-1773) watercolor of a ricebird for $21,600; a portrait of Col. William Allen Trimble (1786-1821) by Matthew Harris Jouett (American, 1788-1827) for $20,400; a Frank Duveneck (American, 1848-1919) oil on canvas titled Portrait of a Boy with Hurdy-Gurdy for $13,800; a Jacob Van Ruisdael (Dutch, 1628-1682) landscape painting for $12,000; and an Albert Bierstadt (American, 1830-1902) oil painting titled Cows Resting for $9,000.


Kentucky furniture

‘George Washington at Trenton, New Jersey,’ after John Trumbull (American, 1756-1843). Price realized: $31,200. Cowan’s Auctions image


Like most Cowan’s Americana sales, the auction included several unique decorative pieces that sparked a great deal of interest. A folk art embellished map of the Western Reserve and Fire Lands of Ohio, circa 1826, had the most bidders in the auction as six phone bidders and several floor bidders vied for the rare piece. It eventually sold for $15,600.


Kentucky furniture

Folk art embellished map of the ‘Western Reserve and Fire Lands of Ohio,’ circa 1826. Price realized: $15,600. Cowan’s Auctions image


Other unique items of note from the auction included an early Southern embroidered pictorial textile from the late 18th or early 19th century that sold for $14,400; a John Brewster Jr. (American, 1766-1854) miniature of a gentleman plus two other American portrait miniatures for $9,600; an alabaster carving medallion of the Great Seal of the United States that once belonged to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk for $9,600; and an 18th-century Boston Fishing Lady school sampler for $8,400.


Kentucky furniture

Southern embroidered pictorial textile, late 18th or early 19th century. Price realized: $14,400. Cowan’s Auctions image


Other miscellaneous highlights include an Alfred Boucher (French, 1850-1934) bronze sculpture titled Au But, which sold for $10,455; a Nathan Hazen coin silver equestrian trophy presented to Ohio Governor Allen Trimble for $7,800; and a Georgian bracket clock with brass and silvered dial signed John Carter / London for $7,200.