Published: November 24, 2020
Review by Greg Smith, Photos Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
CINCINNATI – The collection of Louis Hahn, a collector and dealer of Slippery Rock, Penn., was sold in 776 lots over two days November 11-12 at Cowan’s Auctions. Hahn, who passed away at the age of 91 in June of this year, amassed a formidable collection of Western Pennsylvania stoneware in addition to advertising, early furniture and a slew of other pieces that he stored in the barns on his property. His sale would gross $619,000 and sell 174 percent over the low estimate.
“This whole sale came together almost by accident,” founder of Cowan’s Auctions, Wes Cowan, said. “Three or four years ago, I was in Pittsburgh looking at offices and I stopped in at the Antique Center of Strabane in Canonsburg, just south of Pittsburgh. A wonderful mall full of great Americana run by Kimberly Guzzi. I went in and introduced myself and we were all yakking back and forth, and then I walked through the mall. Kim walked up to me and said one of her dealers would like to meet me, so I was introduced to Louis and his daughter. And that was that, he went on with his business and I went on with mine. Flashforward to this spring, I got a call that Louis Hahn had passed away and I made a trip to visit with the family – and that’s how the sale came together.”
Cowan said Hahn was a knowledgeable collector with a good eye, unafraid to purchase on opportunity when a nice thing sitting on the ground in front of him was priced right. Hahn bought from both regional auction houses near him and those further afield.
“He was a well-known fixture in his parts,” Cowan said, noting the many people who knew him in western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio.
The first day of the sale saw Hahn’s primary collecting passions in Western Pennsylvania stoneware and Pittsburgh-related advertising dispersed.
“Certainly to my knowledge, this was probably one of the largest collections of Western Pennsylvania stoneware that has appeared on the market in 25 years,” Cowan said. More than 200 lots of stoneware, some with multiple pieces, found new buyers across the country.
Leading them was a 21-inch stoneware water cooler with Federal eagle cobalt decoration that sold for $11,875. The auction house wrote, “While coolers incorporating American eagles are hardly uncommon, the graceful shape of this vessel, with its high outward flaring neck is, in our experience, unique.”
Behind at $8,320 was a Pennsylvania free-hand cobalt decorated 4-gallon crock by the Greensboro, Penn., pottery of Hamilton & Jones. The decoration included bands of swirling floral motifs, stipes, squiggles and dots. The house noted that among the 400 auction records they examined, they could not find another with freehand decoration, making this unique.
“Western Pennsylvania was one of the major regions of stoneware production in the mid- to late Nineteenth Century,” Cowan told us. “There were dozens of manufacturers. A lot of Pennsylvania stoneware looks similar to each other because they did a lot of stenciling, not a lot of freehand decoration. So when you look at Pennsylvania stoneware, it’s very different. You can spot a piece ten miles away largely because of the stenciling they did.”
Cowan said that the Pennsylvania potters had the luxury of the Ohio River, which fed into the Mississippi and allowed them to ship their goods as far away as the southern United States.
“It’s not uncommon to see Pennsylvania stoneware in the Mississippi River Valley. They had sales people going everywhere and selling this stuff and shipping it out,” Cowan said.
And much like the stoneware that was shipped far and wide in the Nineteenth Century, Cowan said collectors came from all parts of the United States as well.
“They went all over the place,” he said.
Another unique form to the Western Pennsylvania potters was the canning jar.
An exceptional example with cobalt stars and floral decoration, 9-3/8 inches high, sold for $6,875 above a $2,500 estimate. The firm said it was likely from Greensboro, Penn., and dated to 1870. Another jar, this one marked Greensboro with a cobalt stenciled decoration of a thistle sold for $5,313. An example from Hamilton & Jones featuring the words “Star Pottery” above a stenciled cobalt cherry decoration brought $4,063.
“I cataloged virtually all the stoneware because I wanted to learn it,” Cowan said. “It was interesting to handle that much at once. Anytime you have several hundred pieces from one region, it gives you an opportunity to see things you have never seen before.”
Hahn’s advertising was led by a lot of two tin signs for the Eberhardt & Ober and American Brewing Co., Pittsburgh brewers, that sold for $5,625 on a $500 estimate. Behind at $2,750 was an Old Overholt Whiskey tin advertising sign.
The second day saw that sale’s leaders in value with two paint-decorated blanket chests from Pennsylvania.
Hindman’s senior specialist of furniture and decorative arts, Benjamin Fisher, cataloged much of that day’s material and noted, “When it comes to early furniture of the period, the painted examples are what people chase.”
At $23,750 was a Federal paint-decorated pine three-drawer blanket chest with three panels to the front featuring tulips rising from a two-handled urn, the central panel featuring the date of 1801. The auction house said the vibrant paint was original and without any touch up.
Right behind at $16,640 was a Berks County example that Fisher preferred. “It was a highlight,” he said, noting the boldly colored columns with arches that encased the tulips to the front, decorations of a horse, eagle and the date 1804 between them. The top featured gouging that appeared as if termites had tunneled into it, but the rest of the piece was strong enough that bidders did not mind.
Cowan’s next American furniture and decorative arts sale is March 9-10. Deadline for consignments are mid-January.
For additional information, www.cowansauctons.com or 513-871-1670.
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