Cowan’s Auction The respected name gets a new twist.

cowans auction red card with native americans true west magazine

Regular viewers of PBS readily recognize Wes Cowan from Antiques Road Show and History Detectives. Back in the late 1970s, Wes toiled away on his B.A. and M.A. in anthropology from the University of Kentucky. Afterwards, he headed to the University of Michigan to add a Ph.D. By 1980, he joined the faculty of the Ohio State University, but soon went on to a museum curatorship.

cowans auction red card with native americans true west magazine
At the December 20, 2018, historical photo auction, a pair of 1880 Ben Wittick cabinet-sized photos at Fort Wingate, New Mexico Territory, included a unique photo captioned a “Sick Mojave” being treated by “Medicine Man – Arizona.”
Pre-Auction Estimate: $400-$600
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $1,440

All the while, Cowan’s passion for early American photography and history remained a sideline. Working from a makeshift office in his garage, he began to buy and sell images. Then, in 1995 he took a bold step, left the museum to became a licensed auctioneer, and start Cowan’s Auctions, Inc., headquartered in Cincinnati. Nearly a quarter of a century later, in January 2019, Hindman L.L.C. acquired Leslie Hindman Auctioneers and Cowan’s Auctions. According to a spokesperson for the newly merged companies, this move “reflects the shared vision of Leslie Hindman and Wes Cowan, the respective founders of each firm.”

native americans by teepee artifact photo true west magazine
Six Stereoviews of Gen. George Crook’s 1876 “Horsemeat March” by Stanley J. Morrow included a significant image of Custer’s guidon recaptured at the Battle of Slim Buttes, as well as poignant scenes of wounded soldiers and their mule transports.
Pre-Auction Estimate: $1,000-$1,500
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $960

Apropos of this new page in auction-world history, a recap of three recently completed auctions by Cowan’s seemed in order. The first featured Historic Photography with 238 lots being offered on December 20, 2018. Among the wide range of subject matter, some of the highest bids went to images of the American West. In fact, a pair of Ben Wittick Stereoviews of a Mohave shaman and his patient was one of the top sellers in the auction at $1,440 including buyer’s premium, well above the estimate of $400 to $600.

bender family home photo true west magazine
A Stereoview by G.R. Gamble of Parsons, Kansas, is a composite of two photographs: the top showing the residence/store/inn of the infamous Bender family, where unsuspecting travelers would be murdered, robbed and their bodies buried to hide the evidence. The bottom view shows the authorities exhuming the victims’ corpses.
Pre-Auction Estimate: $200-$400
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $900
knife and knife case artifacts true west magazine
This unassuming knife measured only 12 inches overall, has a seven-inch blade inlaid with silver and gold depicting a Mexican snake and eagle, a spirally, fluted ivory grip and silver mounts, and came in its original silver embroidered leather scabbard, but proved the highlight of Cowan’s February 6, 2019 Firearms and Accoutrements auction.
Pre-Auction Estimate: $400-$600
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $5,700

On January 10-21, 2019, collectors had the opportunity to select from 209 auction lots during Cowan’s American Indian and Western Art auction. One standout was labeled as a “Vibrant Pueblo Drum,” which certainly told the tale. The $400 to $500 pre-auction estimate for this c. 1930 instrument proved low. When the gavel came down, the handsome handcrafted piece brought $2,040 with buyer’s premium.

blue and orange wooden drum artifact true west magazine
A vibrantly painted blue-and-orange wooden bass drum with a black painted hide bottom and top and beater was a highlight of the January 10, 2019, American Indian and Western Art auction at Cowan’s.
Pre-Auction Estimate: $400-$500
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $2,040

An even larger price realized versus estimate came when a delighted bidder acquired an “Award Winning Display of Miniature Pipe Tomahawks, From the Collection of Art Gerber.” Estimated at $150 between and $250, the actual final with buyer’s premium was $5,100.

pipe tomahawk display at auction true west magazine
Billed as an “Award-Winning Display of Miniature Pipe Tomahawks, from the Collection of Art Gerber,” these ten pipe tomahawks and one catlinite pipestone came with a typed description, and a “Special Award” ribbon from Alicia & Don Bullock’s Santa Monica Indian Ceremonial, January 23-25, 1976.
Pre-Auction Estimate: $150-$250
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $5,100
beaded native american artifact true west magazine
This fringed beaded hide Sioux tobacco bag—sewn and decorated with glass beads in colors of red white-heart, greasy yellow, dark blue, medium blue, cobalt, white and pea green—is finished with rawhide slats
Pre-Auction Estimate: $600-$800
Final Price with Buyer’s Premium: $1,560

A similar pleasant surprise for another seller came during Cowan’s February 6, 2019, Firearms and Accoutrements auction. Most of the 875 lots fetched modest returns. A 19th-century Mexican bowie knife, however, thought to bring $400 to $600 went for nearly ten times that amount with a price realized including buyer’s premium of $5,700.

John Langellier’s most recent book, “Trapdoor” Springfield, was released last summer by Osprey of London. He currently is completing his next book, Scouting with the Buffalo Soldiers: Lieutenant Powhatan Clarke, Frederic Remington and the Tenth U.S. Cavalry in the West.

What do you think?

John Langellier

John Langellier received his PhD in military history from Kansas State University. After a 45-year career in public history, he retired in Tucson, Arizona, in 2015. He is the author of dozens of books, including Fighting for Uncle Sam: Blacks in the Frontier Army, due out in early 2016.