Eleven years later, however, Cowan returned to his first love—antiques—when he founded Cincinnati-based Cowan’s Auctions. What started as a one-man shop in 1995 has grown into an internationally recognized business. But that’s not all Cowan does. The Ohio-licensed auctioneer also writes a monthly antiques column for The Cincinnati Enquirer, regularly speaks at antiques events, writes for various publications and is co-editor of the histories The Origins of Agriculture: An International Perspective and Societies in Eclipse: Eastern North America at the Dawn of European Colonization. He also shares his knowledge of historic Americana on the PBS television series History Detectives and Antiques Roadshow. Wild West recently caught up with Cowan.
‘American Indian and Western art, along with the material documenting Western expansion, will continue to be a big part of our auctions’
How did you get interested in history?
I’ve always been interested in old things, and remember, I have a Ph.D. in anthropology, and was an archaeologist and curator before becoming an auctioneer.
How did you move into auctions?
Like many collectors, I first became a dealer to support my collecting habit. I actually started selling 19th-century photographs in mail and online auctions shortly after I left graduate school. I was a regular consignor to the historical auctions of the late Brian Riba. When Brian died, I had the opportunity to sell a major collection of photographica and decided to jump in with both feet. My first auction led to another, and another, and before I knew it, I was a full-time auctioneer.
How much Old West stuff is on Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives?
Depending on the region of the country, a fair amount of Old West material turns up at the Antiques Roadshow. Obviously, more appears in Western cities.
What Western or Indian auction items have intrigued you the most?
I’m always intrigued by Western items that have great provenance associated with them. One of my favorites was a manuscript archive of a gentleman who headed west from Indiana in the 19th century and ended up working as a cowboy in Colorado and Texas. He was an amateur artist and drew dozens of images of his life herding cattle and wrote an account that was several hundred pages long. It was found on the attic floor of a house in Indiana and brought over $40,000 at auction.
What’s been the biggest surprise of running Cowan’s Auctions?
How hard it is to continually bring fresh, quality merchandise to market! There is so much competition among the various auction houses.
How does Cowan’s compare to other auction houses?
Cowan’s is one of the nation’s leaders in the sale of American Indian art. We hold major, cataloged auctions twice yearly and smaller online-only sales on an intermittent basis. We’re in the business for the long haul.
What’s one piece of Western or Indian artwork you’re dying to see come up for auction in the years ahead?
During the California Gold Rush more than 200 daguerreotypes of scenes in the goldfields were taken by a San Francisco photographer that simply disappeared. Today this photograph collection is probably worth $10 million. I’d love to “rediscover” that trove.
Where do you see Cowan’s going?
American Indian and Western art, along with the material documenting Western expansion, will continue to be a big part of our auctions. We’ve carved out a significant niche in this regard and will try our hardest to hold onto it!