Tiffany ewer, presented to Abraham Lincoln in 1861, leads Cowan’s auction

CINCINNATI – A historically significant Tiffany ewer (estimate $300,000-$400,000) that was presented to Abraham Lincoln on the event of his first inauguration in 1861 will be offered at Cowan’s Spring Fine and Decorative Art Auction on June 6, 2009.

Made of sterling silver with a gold wash, the ewer, lot 256, is decorated with both neoclassical motifs and neo-Grec engraved surfaces. The body of the ewer is engraved with a finely-exectuted Great Seal of the United States, replete with 33 stars, representing all of the states in the Union save Kansas. The absence of the 34th star demonstrates that the ewer was comissioned before Kansas joined the Union in January 1861, and just after the election in November 1860. At the time of the inauguration, seven states had already seceded to form the Confederate States of America, and in the weeks following the event, four more left the Union.

The ewer is engraved with the inscription “To the President of the United States Abraham Lincoln from his Washington Friends March 4, 1861.” The presenters remain a mystery, as the White House did not, at the time, keep inventory of the president’s personal gifts. The Lincoln papers, those housed at the Library of Congress in Washington, DC, show no evidence of such a gift, and Tiffany’s archives have no records of the ewer’s commission. The ewer was purchased from an antique dealer in Boston and remained in the same family for 40 years, and was, for most of that time, on loan to the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in Washington, DC. The item’s historical significance and mysterious origins contribute to its appeal and rarity.

A 19th-century oil painting featuring a man who is likely the freed slave-turned-boxer, Tom Molineaux (1784-1818), provides a glimpse into one American’s life that was fascinating despite many odds. Oral family history suggests that the portrait (estimate $8,000-$10,000) depicts Molineaux, a Virginia slave who gained his freedom boxing for his plantation owner. Once liberated from slavery, he moved to England to box professionally where he was tutored and trained by the freed American slave and self-trained boxer, Bill Richmond.

In 1810, Molineaux challenged Tom Cribb, the English title holder, to a match. Despite size disadvantages, Molineaux fought impressively, but ultimately lost in the 35th round due to a hand injury. In the following year, Molineaux, who had trained little, started drinking heavily and lost weight, again took on Cribb but was defeated. He died in 1818, impoverished and suffering from liver failure. The portrait’s sitter has missing teeth and is accompanied by alcohol, supporting the assertion that the portrait is in fact of Molineaux himself.

An ornate Midwestern Aesthetic Movement bedroom suite consisting of a bed, armoire, dresser and washstand, is estimated to sell for $10,000-$15,000. Likely made for newlyweds, the circa 1870-80 suite is factory-made and embellished with an array of hand-carved features. Several areas are delicately carved with fiddlehead ferns, flowers and small birds hovering over a nest with two tiny eggs, the latter, symbols of hopeful fecundity. Additional figurative elements on the highly-detailed furniture include arched-necked cranes, broad leaves and nettles, and an anchor and a pierced heart.

Other sale highlights include the last five paintings from a rare collection by the prominent Kentucky artist Paul Sawyier. The collection was originally owned by Mary “Mayme” Bull (1865-1914), a woman Sawyier met in 1887 in Frankfort and to whom he was engaged but never married. One painting in the group provides a look at Mayme, resting in a boat on the Kentucky River – a favorite subject in Sawyier’s work.

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Photos courtesy Cowan’s Auctions