Cowan’s Western and Historic Americana Auction hits $1.57 million

CINCINNATI – A long-lost John Brown daguerreotype garnered national attention before the auction, yet it was an exceptional copy of the Maxwell Code that topped Cowan’s Western and Historic Americana sale. The Maxwell Code is the first book printed in the Northwest Territories and fetched $103,500. The sale took place Dec. 6-7 at Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati and was comprised of more than 1,000 lots.

James Maxwell printed the Laws of the Territory Northwest of the Ohio in Cincinnati in 1796. Legal practitioners grew tired of the long name and began referring to it as the Maxwell Code in honor of its printer. Westward Expansion.jpgThe area known as the Northwest Territory was what is now considered Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and portions of Wisconsin and Minnesota.

The Maxwell Code, the first book printed in the Northwest Territories, fetched $103,500.

These laws served as legal code for the frontier and established precedent for when the territory was eventually divided up into states. The Maxwell Code’s antislavery clause was often cited in the years before the Civil War as proof that slavery was never intended to be allowed in the territories or states of the Union.

The copy up for sale was one of the few copies in known existence and even fewer copies not in an institutional collection. Ernest J. Wessen, one of America’s greatest book dealers, owned the copy briefly. It is clear from a letter written by Wessen in 1963 that he believed the book to be exceptional.
“It will always remain the greatest item to have passed through my hands,” he writes. “It was not enough that we got this fine copy in what is the earliest binding, but with its superb provenance so beautifully tied up. It is without a peer.”

Wild Bill Hickok was another legendary figure of the Old West to garner bidders’ interest. A fine cabinet card of Hickok by Forney also beat its estimate and sold for $9,775. Hickok was a lawman who fought for the Union Army during the Civil War. He was known for legendary shootouts and was killed while playing poker in South Dakota.

John Brown Dag.jpgDay two of the sale had all eyes on the John Brown daguerreotype. A bidding war took place for the image and ended with a final price of $97,750.

Rare Daguerreotype of famed abolitionist John Brown.

The daguerreotype was estimated to sell for $60,000 to $80,000. It had been passed down through descendants of the Brown family. The image was taken by African-American photographer Augustus Washington in 1846 or 1847. Experts believe it was taken at the same time as the famous image of Brown displayed in the Smithsonian Institution’s National Portrait Gallery. Both were taken at Washington’s Hartford studio.

Brown was hanged by the state of Virginia for treason in 1859 after he orchestrated the raid on a federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry, Va. He was a passionate abolitionist, yet President Abraham Lincoln called him a “misguided fanatic.”

“We were very pleased with the results of this sale,” commented Wes Cowan, owner of Cowan’s Auctions and the PBS TV series History Detectives. “Considering the uncertain economic climate today, the results just prove the strength of this market.”

Cowan’s next Western and Historic Americana auction is slated for June 2008.

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