Published: October 23, 2017
CINCINNATI, OHIO — 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 October 21. 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 more than 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 Eighteenth 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 bidding 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.
By the time the desk and bookcase were made in 1796, Cowan was one of the most prosperous landholders in what was then Mercer County, one of the three original counties of the commonwealth. The 1795 Kentucky Tax Roll lists him with holdings that included 14 slaves, 18 horses and 60 head of cattle. Only three other residents in his district recorded larger holdings.
“Captain Cowan would have commissioned this imposing Chippendale desk and bookcase as a mark of his status,” said Wes Cowan. “The bookcase alone would make it abundantly clear to anyone entering his home that he was a man of considerable means. Bound books were still relatively rare and expensive at the time and the fact that he could fill this massive bookcase would make a significant statement.”
Family legend holds that the desk and bookcase was made by a traveling cabinetmaker who fell ill and was nursed back to health over a period of weeks or months on the Cowan plantation. During his convalescence, a fine walnut tree was hewn, seasoned, and made into the remarkable piece. Unfortunately, it may never be known if the legend is true as the circumstances of the desk’s creation remain a mystery, although the piece is very clearly dated 1796 on the prospect door.
The piece stands more than 8½ feet tall and more than 3½ feet wide and is constructed entirely with walnut. The interior of the desk is pricked with the inscription “MJ 1796,” presumably for John Cowan and his wife, Mary, and the year the piece was made. The desk contains several drawers and paper slots as well as nine secret drawers hidden behind the central document drawer where the most sensitive documents would have been concealed.
“It’s in an unbelievable state of preservation, especially given the fact that it was clearly used for well over 200 years,” said Wes Cowan. “On the desk you can see the ink stains and oil marks from the hands of six generations of important Kentuckians as they conducted their business.”
The desk and bookcase was offered as a part of Cowan’s fine and decorative art auction featuring Americana that was conducted October 20-21. Watch for a full report
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