Cowan’s solidified itself as the market leader in early photography selling two important lots of 19th century photography for a combined $212,500 in its American History: Premier Auction on June 21, 2019. An exceptional Joel Whitney album of Sioux involved in the 1862 Minnesota Uprising and an exceedingly rare photograph of fugitive slaves posed with abolitionists Levi Coffin and Jonathan Cable went for more than 10 times their estimates selling for $131,250 and $81,250, respectively (including a 25% buyer’s premium).
“Early photography is how it all started for Cowan’s and this auction was really a celebration of our roots,” said Katie Horstman, Cowan’s director of American History. “It’s easy to get hung up on the big prices for these two incredible lots, but we really saw great results across the entire category.”
The Joel Whitney album represented a truly unique piece of Minnesota history. Whitney (1822-1886) is considered Minnesota’s finest pioneer photographer but was mostly known for carte de visite (CDV), or small format photography. The photographs in the album, however, were a much larger format with the largest measuring seven by nine-and-a-quarter inches.
What made the album unique, however, was the subject matter. While the album contained a handful of scenic photos, the bulk of the album consisted of Whitney’s famous studies of the Sioux Indians, many of whom were involved in the 1862 Sioux Uprising.
The new state of Minnesota was home to thousands of American Indians in 1862, many of whom were disenchanted with the government’s promise for annuities. In August of that year, a number of the Dakota were starving; on the 18th, Indians at the Lower Agency attacked the white settlers there. Over the next few weeks hundreds of settlers were killed, until the uprising was finally put down by Federal troops. Included in the album were a number of the Native American principals involved with the uprising. Cut Nose, for one, was charged with the murder of 18 women and children and five men, and admitted to the brutal murder of several settlers in response to the U.S. Army reneging on its treaty obligations. He was hanged with 37 other Dakota on December 26, 1862.
Absentee bidding required the bidding to begin at $13,000, $3,000 above the lot’s low estimate. The six phone bidders vying for the lot were hardly phased. A frenzy of bidding quickly sent the lot past its maximum absentee bid of $30,000 with three phone bidders still actively involved. Only two phone bidders remained as the lot approached six figures and at $105,000 the hammer finally fell, awarding the lot to a private collector. The addition of a 25% buyer’s premium made the total price realized for the lot $131,250.
It was especially appropriate for an important photograph of abolitionists Levi Coffin and Jonathan Cable to be offered in Cowan’s Cincinnati salesroom as the city played such a vital role in the men’s role on the Underground Railroad. Coffin and Cable collaborated on the “Escape of the 28” in 1853, one of the Unground Railroad’s most ambitious operations which conveyed twenty-eight enslaved men, women, and children from Boone County, KY safely north to Canada. Though the individuals shown in the photograph with Coffin and Cable cannot be definitively identified as members of the “Escape of the 28,” they likely benefited from Coffin and Cable’s involvement in abolitionist groups and the Underground Railroad.