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Cowan's Corner | Wes Cowan

Cowan's Corner: Inside track for Outsider Art

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Written by Wes Cowan   
Tuesday, 31 August 2010 13:10
Popeye Reed sandstone Indian bust, sold for $823 at Cowan’s Auctions in May. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc. If you are looking for an attention-grabbing, unusual and unique field to collect, Outsider Art might be just what you are seeking. First coined after World War II, Art Brut or “rough art” was the term used to define art created by those with mental disorders, in solitude and from pure creative impulses, with no interference of social concerns. Over time the definition has broadened, with artists who are outside the tradition of academic art falling under the umbrella of Outsider Art. The genre is characterized by highly original works made by individuals whose inspiration comes from personal experiences rather than formal training. Outsider Art is also referred to as 20th-century folk art, contemporary folk art or self-taught art.

Outsider Art is almost exclusively comprised of sculpture and paintings. Though traditional art mediums such as oil paint, watercolor, canvas, wood and stone are used, much of this art is not created in traditional ways. Artists use found or easily accessible materials such as plastic, cardboard, discarded wood or metal, organic materials such as tree roots and mud, combined with house paint, plaster, or colored marker pens. All can be sources of inspiration and tools for the artists’ creations.

The genre has grown in popularity over the last 40 years, with the works of recognized masters such as William Edmondson, Martin Ramirez, Howard Finster, Sam Doyle and Bill Traylor commanding prices in the thousands. Important public and private collections house pieces by these artists and others, and as such, collectors should be prepared to pay accordingly. Sources known to handle these works, such as collectors, dealers and auction houses, should be consulted when pieces become available for sale. However, this is an exciting field in that despite its popularity, Outsider Art is still available and affordable for just a few hundred dollars.

The key to collecting is study and patience. “Honing the eye,” by viewing works first-hand in museum collections, exhibitions and galleries, is just as important as reading one of the many books written about the field. Having a passion for what you buy and buying the best quality you can afford make collecting a fulfilling experience. Many of these works can be colorful, textural, bold, interesting and mysterious; in some cases this can describe a single piece. Outsider Art will show you many one-of-a-kind perspectives on the world, and the adventures you have while seeking pieces and learning about artists will produce priceless memories.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Research by Roxanne Argenbright.


ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE
Charlie Willeto rare animal carving, estimated to sell for $2,300-$2,500 in October. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Painting by Richard Burnside, estimated to sell for $100-$200 in October. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
‘Timberwolf’ by Levant Isik, estimated to bring $100-$200 in October. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
‘Find the Missing Man’ diorama in a bottle, sold for $1,725 at Cowan’s in March 2008. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 01 September 2010 13:33
 

Cowan's Corner: Ancient art glass makes a cameo at auction

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Written by Wes Cowan   
Wednesday, 16 June 2010 07:15
This Gallé Cameo art glass vase is estimated to bring $400-$600 is Cowan’s July 31 Continental Fine and Decorative Art Auction. Art glass sprang from a revolution in glassmaking in the mid 1800s, when glass blowers began experimenting with different colors, patterns and textures. The subsequent melding of artistry and technique resulted in a wide variety of beautiful handmade objects. One of these art glass techniques was known as Cameo glass, or art glass with small sculpture designs executed in low relief, creating a difficult and time-consuming process.

Cameo glass techniques were first used in early Roman era and the results were nothing less than magnificent. The famous Portland vase, which took 10 years to complete, is such a product from this era. A highly skilled Roman gem-carver likely created it around 30 B.C. The vase was made of violet-blue glass, and surrounded with a single continuous white glass cameo, depicting Roman and mythological figures. This vase has served as an inspiration to many a glassmaker from about the beginning of the 18th century onward.

After the Portland vase was broken while on display in the British Museum, John Northwood, a Stroubridge glass designer and manufacturer was commissioned to replicate the famous vase. It took three years to complete and received rave reviews, which helped establish him as a fine glass engraver. Northwood started to produce other pieces of Cameo glass, for the demand was evident that it was indeed an accepted and desirable form of collectible art. This then began the revival of cameo glass, which was suited equally to Neo-Grec taste and the French Art Nouveau.

Due to the onset popularity of Cameo glass in the late 1800s, other English glass manufactures followed Northwood’s revival of glass carving. By 1890-1899 many of the top European glass companies and designers were producing Cameo glass. George Woodall, Stevens and Williams, Thomas Webb & Sons, Joseph Locke, Emile Gallé, Daum and others were among the list of prestigious glass carvers. Cameo glass is the result of two or more layers of glass having been laminated together by means of acid and hand-tool carving, the final pattern on the outer surface is left in high relief by removing the surrounding area.

The Cameo art glass market was well received and the demands for production by British glass manufactures continue into the 20th century. Today the interest in early Cameo glass is still strong among collectors. The skill involved to produce a piece of Cameo glass is well appreciated and respected. Daum, Gallé, Val St. Lambert, Thomas Webb & Sons, and Woodall are just a few names that are associated with fine Cameo art glass and thus bring a respectable price at auction. In today’s auction market a 5-inch Daum Cameo vase would sell for approximately $1,000 and an exceptional wheel carved Cameo vase could sell for $5,000 or more.

Avid collectors who can’t wait to add to their growing collection of Cameo glass and even novice collectors can see the beauty and realize what it took to make that glass vase. From the hours designing, the skill in carving, the finished product, no two Cameo glass vases are alike, each being individually created. It is an art form from early history that will always be appreciated.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Research by Janet Rogers.


ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE
A Legras Cameo art glass vase is estimated to bring $1,000-$1,500 in Cowan’s July 31 Continental Fine and Decorative Art Auction.
A Pair of enameled Cameo glass barber bottles sold for $160 in Cowan’s 2007 Shaving Mugs and Barbershop Collectibles Auction.
Last Updated on Tuesday, 31 August 2010 15:48
 

Cowan's Corner: Little people hit the big time

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Written by Wes Cowan   
Thursday, 03 June 2010 08:02
A rare British Tom Thumb ‘The American Man in Miniature’ handbill realized $180 in Cowan’s 2004 Spring Historical Americana Auction. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions Inc. We are all familiar with the phrase “big things come in small packages,” and in the case of famed showman P.T. Barnum’s tiniest performers such as General Tom Thumb, the paraphernalia created at the height of these miniature celebrities’ careers often comes in small, yet valuable packages that can draw a great deal of interest among collectors of American and circus history.

Although Barnum featured a variety of acts and “human curiosities,” including giants, dwarves, magicians, albinos and exotic women at his American Museum in New York City as well as in his tours and traveling circus, Tom Thumb was one of Barnum’s smallest, yet most popular performers. Born Charles Sherwood Stratton (1838-1883) in Bridgeport, Conn., Tom Thumb was discovered by Barnum, a distant relative, around the age of 5. After learning how to sing, dance and impersonate famous people, Stratton went on his first tour of America alongside Barnum, which turned out to be a major success. The following year, Stratton journeyed to Europe, where he appeared twice before Queen Victoria, thus making a name for himself both nationally and internationally.

In 2004, Cowan’s handled a rare handbill advertising one of Tom Thumb’s engagements during his first trip to England in 1844. Featuring a depiction of the small star standing before Barnum and his parents, the broadside describes Tom Thumb, weighing only 15 pounds, as the “American Man in Miniature,” yet lies by saying he is 13-years-old, when in reality, he was only 6 at the time. This fine handbill brought $150 at auction, and comparable advertisements for Tom Thumb among other unique celebrities can bring between $50 and $200 at auction, making them affordable items for beginning collectors.

Photographs of Tom Thumb and fellow performers have frequently appeared at auction and in Internet sales over the years. Some of the most well-known photographs document the marriage of Tom Thumb to another dwarf by the name of Lavinia Warren in 1863, capturing the highly-publicized ceremony as well as the wedding party, which included Commodore Nutt, another mini Barnum performer, and Warren’s even smaller sister, Minnie. Barnum actually hired famous Civil War photographer Mathew Brady to produce the photographs of the wedding to sell to the mass market. Some photos even feature facsimile signatures of the wedding party on the back. A beginning collector can purchase carte-de-visite photos of Tom Thumb’s wedding, as well as comparable images of Barnum’s miniature celebrities for between $25 and $50.

In June, Cowan’s is featuring an archive of Tom Thumb collectibles that once belonged to his personal valet, B.F. Sellers, and the highlights include Tom Thumb’s miniature topcoat, vest, pants, gloves, wool cap and fine leather boots, manufactured by the Queen of England’s boot makers. This rather petite, yet remarkable group, valued at $10,000-$15,000, may appeal to the more passionate Tom Thumb collector, but it is still quite a sight to behold for those interested in the history and stature of this 19th-century celebrity.

Although it might be difficult for you to get your hands on an item from his wardrobe, it might be less challenging to obtain photographs, broadsides and ephemera related to Tom Thumb plus other well-known miniature Barnum performers, such as Commodore Nutt, Admiral Dot and Major Atom, and with Barnum’s 200th birthday coming up on July 5, it would only be fitting to invest in these tiny pieces of history.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via e-mail at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Research by Katie Landrigan.


ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE
This group of P.T. Barnum ephemera sold for $390 at Cowan’s 2006 Spring Historical Americana Auction. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Three Tom Thumb Wedding CDVs sold for $30 at Cowan’s 2009 Firearms, Indian Art, & American History Auction. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
These CDV images are from an album that belonged to Tom Thumb’s personal valet. Typically these individual carte-de-visit photos bring $25-$50 apiece at auction. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Tom Thumb's boots, kepi, pants, topcoat, and vest are estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000 in Cowan’s 2010 American History, Including the Civil War Auction this month. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Tom Thumb's boots, kepi, pants, topcoat, and vest are estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000 in Cowan’s 2010 American History, Including the Civil War Auction this month. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Last Updated on Wednesday, 16 June 2010 11:34
 

Cowan's Corner: U.S. Cavalry saddle accoutrements

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Written by Wes Cowan   
Thursday, 01 April 2010 14:06
Model 1896 McClellan saddle rig, complete with the saddlebags, lariat, and carbine boot for a Krag carbine, estimated to sell for $3,000-$4,000. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions. Collectors of relics from American history, especially those interested in American militaria, may find a unique collecting opportunity in the accoutrements associated with the U.S. Cavalry. The scope of collecting in this field is large and can include flags, headgear, uniforms, firearms and sabers. The Cavalry is synonymous with the horse, and just collecting saddle-related items is a large category of interest in itself. The Indian Wars era (1866-1898) was the high point in the history of the U.S. Cavalry, and collectors compete enthusiastically for items from that period.

The U.S. military suppliers were obviously required make items that we commonly associate with the Cavalry, such as saddles, stirrups and bits. However, the suppliers also needed to make peripheral items, to be used during the campaigns, which attached to the saddles. Even today, many of these items are available in the market for collectors who are seeking them.

Indeed, when one looks at a historic military saddle on display in a museum, one may at first be bewildered by all of the articles that go with the saddle; there seems to be an excess of arcane objects hanging from it. For a collector with a modest budget, these “peripheral” items allow him to accumulate separate objects that can be used to create a complete “rig,” just the way the saddle would have looked while in use more than 100 years ago.

Attached to the sides of the saddles would be conveyance items such as saddle bags for carrying provisions, saddle holsters, saddle scabbards, and carbine boots. A collector should look for the “U.S.” stamping on the leather that is proof that the item was U.S. military issue. Other more esoteric items include picket pins, tent covers, rain jackets, canteens and even lariats. Some of these may not have the “U.S.” markings, but would have been essential items for the soldiers.

Underneath the saddle, saddle blankets were used to protect the horse’s coat from constant rubbing. These blankets were usually made out of wool and sometimes would have the Cavalry unit’s designations on them. A “shabraque,” a cover designed to go over the saddle, is a rare accessory and were not in common use by the U.S. Cavalry. Gen. Robert E. Lee was presented a shabraque during the Civil War by the ladies of Richmond, Va. Lee, being a gracious man, accepted the gift, but used it only one time in his career, at a military review.

Behind the saddle, a valise would be attached for carrying provisions. The “Grimsley leather horseshoe pouch,” carrying a spare horseshoe and nails, was the “emergency roadside kit” of the day.

Cavalry accoutrements provide a range of material for everyone - from the novice to the sophisticated collector. For the beginning collector interested in American military history, they can be a unique and affordable niche on which to focus; having a goal of constructing a complete “rig” can be a fun lifelong pursuit.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Research by Joe Moran.


ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE
M1885 leather U.S. saddlebags, displaying the U.S. stamp and maker’s name, sold for $633 in April 2009 at Cowan’s. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions.
Two rifle scabbards sold as a single lot for $403 in November. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions.
A 1908 service saddlecloth is estimated to sell for $500-$700. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions.
Considered rare, a Civil War officer’s shabraque is estimated to bring $2,000-$3,000. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions.
Cavalry officer’s saddle valise from the late Indian Wars is estimated to sell for $500-$700. Image courtesy Cowan’s Auctions.
Last Updated on Monday, 05 April 2010 09:11
 

Cowan's Corner: Images of the American Indian

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Written by Wes Cowan   
Tuesday, 09 March 2010 14:32
A fine example of an etching and aquatint by Karl Bodmer, published in his travels, depicts rich details. It sold for $6,750 in June 2008 at Cowan’s. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. During the early part of the 1830s, Western expansion was in full force. Following the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, Ohio was admitted as the 17th state in 1803, and was rapidly settled. The push west continued. The Missouri and Mississippi rivers became major conduits for exploration and further settlement; trading posts were established, regular army patrols conducted, and expansion increased.

At this time, a surge of visual material related to the American Indian tribes began to surface. This sudden appearance was largely due to the work of two artists working separately, albeit under parallel circumstances. Karl Bodmer (Swiss, 1809-1893), George Catlin (American, 1796-1872).

The monumental (and unlikely) figures of this movement, Karl Bodmer and George Catlin, came from very different circumstances - Catlin the purely American capitalist and relentless self-promoter, Bodmer the reserved, quiet Swiss printmaker and draftsman. Each produced an enormous body of work that survives, amazingly, in original form and in the form published prints.

George Catlin began his artistic career as a miniature portrait painter in Philadelphia, common work for an artist attempting to make a living. Catlin became fascinated with Native Americans after witnessing a delegation of Native Americans in Philadelphia. In 1830, Catlin joined a diplomatic mission up the Mississippi River. From 1830-1836, Catlin took five trips, resulting in an abundance of original portraits, landscapes and cultural studies. St. Louis was his base of operations, and paintings were stored there until Catlin felt he had amassed enough material to market back East.

Catlin was a gifted promoter, and often remarked that the American Indian tribes were rapidly disappearing, highlighting the rarity of his paintings. By 1838, Catlin had fully cataloged his collection and displayed them in his great Indian Gallery in New York. Unable to sell his entire collection to the United States government, Catlin took his gallery on tour through Europe, and eventually sold his collection, to a wealthy Philadelphia collector. Amazingly, the collection of original paintings survives today. If the Smithsonian purchased the works as Catlin had originally intended, the collection would have almost certainly burned in the 1865 fire that consumed the Smithsonian.

Catlin’s North American Indian Portfolio was published in 1844. Each with 25 color plates these volumes were inexpensive and accessible to the common collector. Most of these are broken out, or divided into single plates and framed. They regularly surface on the market and are in demand. Catlin’s originals are primarily at the Smithsonian or in institutional hands.

Karl Bodmer, Swiss born draftsman, was selected to accompany German explorer Prince Maximilian zu Wied on a scientific expedition to North America, specifically to document the native tribes, geography, and various animal and plant species. From 1832-1834, Bodmer’s group traveled along the Missouri River, recording their findings. Bodmer explored the same period as Catlin and produced an enormous body of work, primarily watercolors, focusing on American Indian subjects and their art, utensils and cultural ceremonies, as well as landscapes. Bodmer’s work was incredibly precise, and is viewed by scholars today as being a more accurate representation of the various American Indian tribes.

Upon returning to Germany, Bodmer became engaged in the printing process. Eighty-one illustration plates were designed as hand-colored etchings and aquatints, to be incorporated into Prince Maximilian’s Travels in the Interior of North America, published in London in 1839. Like Catlin, Bodmer’s prints usually surface on the market today as individual plates. His entire collection of original watercolors now resides at the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Neb.

In today’s market, both Bodmer and Catlin works on paper command strong prices at auction. Though numerous plates were produced, they are rare to find them in good condition, and they are some of the first examples of American Indian subjects produced in printed form.

altWes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan’s Auctions Inc. in Cincinnati. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it . Research by Graydon Sikes.



ADDITIONAL LOTS OF NOTE
This lithograph depicting a ‘Bear Dance,’ a plate from 'Catlin's North American Indian Portfolio,' sold for $1,300 in Cowan's June, 2009 Historical Americana auction. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
‘Indian Utensils and Arms,’ is a good example of Bodmer's thorough and scientific approach, from the view of an artist/ethnologist. It sold for $1,200. Image courtesy of Cowan’s Auctions Inc.
Last Updated on Thursday, 03 June 2010 11:55
 
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