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 Saturday, October 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 all categories propelling the sale to a $1.8 million total (including Buyer’s Premium).
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 Captain John Cowan for six generations.
“We’re thrilled,” said Wes Cowan, Cowan’s principal auctioneer and executive chairman (no relation to Captain 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. Three phone bidders went back and forth for several minutes before the same phone bidder once again jumped the bidding to $250,000. When action finally began to slow down at $300,000, a floor bidder who had been patiently biding his time entered the fray. After exchanging bids for two minutes, the 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.
Captain 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.
Furniture was by no means the only hot category for the auction, though. Fine paintings saw a great deal of interests during both days making up five of the top ten 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.
“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.”