Cowan’s Spring Western and Historic Americana Auction was live and on-line

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Among antebellum artifacts was one of the highlights of the auction: an archive of 75 documents that belonged to Amos Riley, master of the renowned fugitive slave Josiah Henson, who was one of the models for the character of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin.

CINCINNATI – Wes Cowan’s Spring Western and Historic Americana auction offered a fascinating selection of Native American, early republic, antebellum, Civil War, and Western memorabilia at his auction house in Cincinnati on June 5, and online on June 6.

Among antebellum artifacts, categorized as Slavery and the African American experience, was one of the highlights of the auction: an archive of 75 documents that belonged to Amos Riley, the master of the renowned fugitive slave, Josiah Henson, who was one of the models for the character of Uncle Tom in Harriet Beecher’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The archive sold for $11,500 with buyer’s premium somewhat below its estimated maximum value of $15,000.

Henson, who was Riley’s trusted slave, had frequent opportunities to escape, but he felt it violated the trust placed in him by his master. After a time, he entered into an arrangement whereby he would purchase his freedom and a price was agreed upon. When it appeared that his master was reneging on the agreement, Henson arranged for his family’s escape in 1830. He was 41 at the time. He later claimed to have been the model for Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom and that he met her before the publication of her book. But Stowe said that he was only one of several models.

Henson published the first version of his noted autobiography in 1849. The archive included not only a facsimile copy of that edition but also three other volumes of the Henson narrative. Among those were a first edition of Henson’s updated 1879 version of his narrative with a preface by Harriet Beecher Stowe, and introductory notes by Wendell Phillips and John Greenleaf Whittier.

Perhaps the most valuable piece of ephemera in the Riley archive was a handwritten pass that Riley supplied Henson dated August 23, 1827.

A separate but related item that brought a good price was an 1853 runaway slave reward broadside from Maryland that went for $4,025 with buyer’s premium, well above its maximum estimated value of $3,000.

Also, in the Slavery and African American experience, was a rare daguerreotype of Radical Republican congressman and Underground Railroad conductor, Thaddeus Stevens that sold for $4,600 with buyer’s premium, at the lower end of its estimated $4,000 to $6,000 value. The portrait included the inscription “Thaddeus Stevens” on the back, and was housed in a floral embossed case. Stevens was a seven-term congressman from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, who defended fugitive slaves and abolitionists in cases involving the Fugitive Slave Law. He also was one of the leading members in Congress in the fight for the passage of the 14th and 15th amendments, though the latter did not come until 1870, two years after his death in 1868.

Three rare, wooden plantation horns from Kentucky, however, went unsold.

Another highlight of the auction was a rare copy of Henry S. Tanner’s New American Atlas published in 1825, a revised edition of the 1823 volume, that sold for $42,255 with buyer’s premium that compared favorably with the maximum estimated value of $40,000. The volume included 22 hand-colored multi-page maps of North and South America, the American states up to that time, and maps of Europe, Asia, and Africa.

A number of Civil War archives that included letters, diaries, and military records were offered. Most significant were the Civil War letters and papers of Lazarus R. Harding and the Civil War memoirs of Thomas Livermore, author of the Civil War reference book, Numbers and Losses in the Civil War in America, 1861-1865. The Harding archive that comprised 94 letters with content covering camp life, marches, battles, and the pursuit of the army of General Robert E. Lee after Gettysburg sold for $6,900 comfortably within the estimated value of between $6,000 and $7,500. However, the Livermore memoirs, which comprised two volumes totaling nearly 500 pages and which provided vivid descriptions of the battles at the Peninsula, Antietam, Gettysburg, Petersburg, and Mine Run, was still unsold at the close of the auction.

One of the most touted items prior to the auction was an orotone of Buffalo Bill Cody, but the item was withdrawn because of doubts about its authenticity. However, there were more than 20 lots related to Buffalo Bill and his Wild West Show that were offered. Bringing the highest price was a coin silver pocket watch that sold for $12,075 with buyer’s premium – far above the maximum estimated value of $5,000. The watch was engraved with the handwritten name of Buffalo Bill on the front cover, and an applied silver image of a buffalo standing atop a globe showing the western hemisphere on the back cover.

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Handwritten pass that Riley supplied Josiah Henson, dated August 23, 1827.
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A truly unique and curious item offered was a megalethoscope, a 19th century picture viewer, with accompanying walnut cabinet and 50 views of European scenes that sold for $10,350 with buyer's premium, near its estimated maximum value of $10,000. Invented around 1870 by Carlo Ponti, the megalethoscope illuminates the photographs that are colored and enhanced to create dramatic lighting effects.
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Megalethoscope detail.
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Broadside heralding reward for return of runaway slaves.

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