Published: October 6, 2020
Review by Madelia Hickman Ring, Catalog Photos Courtesy Cowan’s Auctions
CINCINNATI, OHIO – Cowan’s Auctions’ two-day American Furniture, Folk and Decorative Arts auction September 22-23 featured more than 550 lots of furniture, paintings, folk art, toys, mechanical and still banks, stoneware, trade signs, advertising and more. It achieved a total price of $456,781, beating its low estimate of $340,050. Speaking on the phone after the sale, Wes Cowan, Cowan’s founder and Hindman vice chairman, said that 33 percent of the bidders who participated in the sale were new to Cowan’s, with 85 of 208 successful buyers making their first-time purchases from the house. With the sale conducted virtually without in-person bidding, Cowan acknowledged that most of the top lots went to phone bidders.
“It was a very strong sale,” Cowan said. “It was very reflective of where we see the market for fresh Americana.”
Leading the auction, and indicating the strength of interest in regional fine and decorative arts was a rare piece of Kentucky history: a portrait of the Commonwealth’s first governor, Isaac Shelby (1750-1826) that sold for $112,500. The portrait – which had been used as the original upon which later copies had been based – was painted by Kentucky artist Matthew Harris Jouett (1788-1827), and had stayed in the family since Shelby’s death.
“This is the definition of unique Kentucky history. Not only is this a remarkable portrait by Kentucky’s greatest early portrait painter, it’s also a portrait of a Kentucky founding father and the first governor of the Commonwealth,” Cowan said.
Shelby was a Revolutionary War hero at the Battle of King’s Mountain in South Carolina, who settled in Knob Creek in modern-day Kentucky shortly after the war. As Kentucky approached statehood, he was called to participate in political conventions where he quickly became one of the most revered voices. He was unanimously elected governor in May 1792, and served until June 1796, when he left public life for 16 years. In 1812, as war loomed, he was again elected governor, and while still in office, led the Kentucky militia at the Battle of the Thames, earning the Congressional Gold Medal in the process.
Jouett was born in what would become Mercer County, Ky., to a Revolutionary War hero in his own right. The family was only able to send one of the eight sons to college and the brothers agreed that Matthew should be given the opportunity. He went to Transylvania University in Lexington, Ky., to study law but decided to abandon the legal profession to focus his efforts on painting.
Jouett spent the summer of 1816 working in the Boston studio of presidential portraitist Gilbert Stuart, who is best known for his portraits of George Washington including the one that adorns the one-dollar bill. Jouett, whom Stuart affectionately called “Kentucky,” was Stuart’s favorite student and in the four months Jouett spent with him, Jouett learned how to set his palette, place the figure on the planar field and, perhaps most importantly, size up the subject’s character.
Once he returned to Kentucky and established a studio near the Court House square in Lexington, Jouett set about painting many of the seminal figures in early Kentucky history. Drawing upon social contacts from his student days at Transylvania University, family ties and his distinguished service in the War of 1812, Jouett soon became the portraitist of choice for legends of the Commonwealth. As such, his portraits are highly coveted among Kentucky collectors.
Four phone bidders battled for the lot with the bidding beginning at $45,000. After a few initial exchanges, one of the bidders, understanding the value of the painting, advanced the bid to $65,000. Undeterred, two bidders continued bidding in $5,000 increments against the bidder who increased the bid until the lot was sold to a private collector from Kentucky for $112,500.
A pair of portraits of Mr and Mrs George Parsons, once thought to have been done by Jouett, brought $3,000 from an online bidder. Previously in the Lexington collection of Jeannette R. Marks until they were sold at Christie’s in 1987, the portraits have more recently been attributed to both Joseph Henry Bush – in the case of Mr Parsons – and Thomas Jefferson Wright as the hand behind the portrait of Mrs Parsons. “The Kentucky market is like every regional market; there is strong demand for quality items and those portraits fit the bill,” Cowan said of the pair.
The portraits further extend a string of recent Kentucky-related successes for Cowan’s. In 2018, the Cincinnati-based auction house sold another Jouett portrait, this one of Henry Clay (1777-1852), a titan of Kentucky politics who was a Senator, Speaker of the House of Representative and Secretary of State, which sold for $108,000. The year prior, Cowan’s achieved the second highest price ever for a piece of southern furniture selling the secretary desk and bookcase of Captain John Cowan (1748-1823), one of the 32 men who established the first British settlement in what is today Kentucky, for $498,750.
Another regional top-selling fine art lot was a portrait by Patrick Henry Davenport (1803-1890) of John Reynolds (1788-1865), the fourth governor of Illinois, which beat its estimate of $3/5,000 when an Illinois bidder acquired it for $5,625.
The top lot in the decorative arts category was a scrimshaw whale’s tooth, circa 1835-45, attributed to the anonymous scrimshaw artist referred to as the Banknote Engraver. The sperm whale tooth was engraved on both sides; one side depicted an engraved naval battle, while the reverse featured a seated woman reading a book. The scrimshaw sold to a private collector in Massachusetts for $23,750.
Works from New England, New York state and the Mid-Atlantic performed largely to par with a few surprises. Bringing $15,360 was a carved, painted and gilt pine classical figure, attributed to New York, circa 1830, selling just ahead of its low estimate. A West Troy, N.Y., 6-gallon stoneware crock decorated with three pecking birds achieved $10,000, well ahead of its estimate, much like a Norton stoneware 3-gallon crock with a depiction of a reclining deer that bidders chased to $6,250. A Philadelphia Chippendale walnut open armchair sold within estimate for $3,500, while an “exuberantly painted” New England blanket chest topped off at $2,688, going to a Canadian buyer bidding online.
The sale was boosted by strong results for a selection of regional Midwest pottery, largely comprised of offerings from the Traverse City, Mich., estate of Jack Batdorff. The first day of sale saw 21 pottery lots from Batdorff’s estate, 14 of which had Midwestern origin. Most lots exceeded expectations, highlighted by a 2-gallon Ohio stoneware crock that ran to $3,625 and four Ohio Bagnall-style pottery dogs, variously glazed, that fetched prices from $3,375 to $768.
“I was really happy with the results because [Batdorff] was not shy about buying stoneware and would pay a high price; in most cases we actually exceeded the prices he originally paid. That was really gratifying and also reflects the contemporary market for regional stoneware,” Cowan commented.
Prices quoted include the buyer’s premium as reported by the auction house.
Cowan’s next Americana sale is scheduled for November 11-12.
Cowan’s is at 6270 Este Avenue. For more information, 513-871-1670 or www.cowans.com.
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