Wes Cowan – In search of history

Wes Cowan is truly someone you could describe as the salt of the earth. Affable, easy-going, with a rich baritone voice that hints of his Kentucky roots, he makes you feel right at home when you are with him. He’s one of those down-to-earth people who keeps his dog in his office and offers his own seat behind his desk to the reporter. His humble demeanor belies his success in building a multi-million dollar antiques business that began selling old photographs out of his house through mail order.

“My business took off,” he says, “because two people who were doing what I was doing, selling historical photographs and historical ephemera, left the business and no one else was doing it.”

Cowan explains his success by being in the right place, at the right time. “Opportunities have arisen and we seized them,” he says.

An example of this, he says, was when he learned that Western Reserve College was de-accessing their American Indian Arts Collection. He offered to sell it and it was the beginning of his now very successful Native American auctions.

He also attributes his success in landing a role on the PBS series, The History Detectives, which has been airing six years, to his appearances on the PBS program, Antiques Roadshow, on which he began appearing 12 years ago. The Roadshow appearances originated, apparently, because they were interested in getting a local appraiser to appear when they came to Cincinnati. Cowan incidentally wasn’t the only Roadshow regular to get interviewed for The History Detectives, but he was the one who got the job.

So how did this lucky guy who grew up in Louisville get started on this serendipitous road to success that has made him a minor celebrity in the history and antiques business?

“I think I had a collector’s gene in my chromosomal makeup,” he says.

While his mother did love antiques, he says he actually got interested in collecting things while working summers at his mother’s family farm in western Kentucky.

“Natural history stuff,” he says. “We’d unearth fossils and Indian artifacts during plowing. And I always had lizards and snakes and turtles around.”

When he was about ten, he says he knew he wanted to be an archaeologist when he grew up. The Indian artifacts he found on his grandparents’ farm had fascinated him. By age 15 he was doing excavations with archaeologists from the University of Kentucky, where he eventually received his B.A. and M.A. in anthropology.

He also began collecting antiques during his early teens, his first collection being a set of hand painted Bavarian plates. In graduate school, he became interested in 19th century photography. Meanwhile, he matriculated to the University of Michigan where he received his Ph.D. in anthropology, concentrating on paleoethnobotany, the origins of agriculture, and past human and plant populations. His contributions in that field include editing the books, The Origins of Agriculture in International Perspective and Societies in Eclipse: Eastern North America at the Dawn of European Colonization, for Smithsonian Press.

After three years as an anthropology instructor at Ohio State University and another year in Michigan, he moved to Cincinnati, taking a position as the curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Cincinnati. He held that post for 12 years during which he began to take the steps that led to his move into the antiques business. His collection of 19th century photographs led to the development of a small scale mail order business. He also began displaying his wares at antiques shows, and he had amassed a significant number of the stereoviews of Frank J. Haynes, who was for many years the official photographer of Yellowstone National Park.

In 1995, Cowan decided to make a major move into the antiques business and sold his Haynes collection. It enabled him to renovate a building to house his budding antiques business and he began leasing a space to hold his first auctions.

As we talked, he retrieved a huge, hard cover volume. It included a reduced-in-size copy of every auction catalog he has produced.

“I did it all in the beginning,” he said. “Everything but the color photography.”

He was so successful that the next year he resigned from his job at the natural history museum and became a full-time antiques dealer and auctioneer. Last year he moved into a 27,000-square-foot building with a spacious display gallery and a section with ample seating for the auction audience. Bidders from North and South America, Europe, Japan and the Middle East send representatives to his auctions or bid online, where most of his higher end items are usually sold. His gross annual sales now total about $15 million.

But it’s not as much about the business for Cowan as it is about the history.

“That’s what attracted me to this business in the first place, that window into American history,” he said. “I liked tugging at the thread that maybe leads you where you thought you’d never go.”

His inquisitive nature, the consummate knowledge he has gained through his years as a professional archaeologist and anthropologist, and his work in the antiques business made him a natural to be a host for The History Detectives. Early photography, firearms and swords, furniture, or old obscure objects or pieces of ephemera are likely to be within his expertise. And as he says, if he doesn’t know, he likely will know someone who does.

His 12 years on Antiques Roadshow have been very fruitful in this regard. But surprisingly it’s not financially beneficial to appraisers except in terms of exposure to its 12 million viewers. For example, none of the appraisers are compensated – all expenses are paid out of each appraiser’s pocket. In addition, appraisers cannot solicit business and must wait at their tables for people to approach them with an item to appraise. Furthermore, appraisers have to pitch their stories to producers who decide whether or not to film them. So sometimes a long trip to a Roadshow site with all the expense involved may not even result in the sought-after exposure.

It was at an Antiques Roadshow in Hotsprings, Ark., that Cowan saw the first of the objects currently piquing his collector’s gene: the folk art sand bottles of Andrew Clemens.

A deaf-mute from Iowa, Clemens created detailed sand art displays of sailing ships, locomotives, and American eagles holding American flags and banners in their beaks. Clemens produced hundreds of these bottles during the 1890s in which he also would include the name of the person for whom he was creating it, often written in script.

“I can just imagine him putting in the sand, grain by grain,” Cowan says, though no one knows how he actually did it. “I’ve been trying to get people see what a genius he was.”

Cowan says he sold 12 or 13 of the Clemens bottles at his auctions over the years, and that some have sold for as much as $25,000. Cowan also says that there were some standard models that Clemens repeated and that he had imitators, but what interests Cowan are the non-standard, one-of-a-kind pieces.

“I’m forever in awe of the people of the past and their accomplishments. I’d love to be able to see Andrew Clemens makes one of those bottles.”

His awe is communicated on the TV screen in The History Detectives.

“In school, everybody learns about history with a capital H,” Cowan said in another interview about his work on History Detectives. “But in fact, history is a continuum of interactions and events: people, countries, economies, myriad other factors.”

All these come into play on the show’s search for the story behind the objects being investigated. Surprisingly, the hosts do not research the stories themselves, though they can suggest them. It’s the producers who select them and then assign them to two researchers who spend six weeks tracking down the story. From this, a loose script is created. Cowan and the other hosts then have five days to produce the segment, three to tell the story and film it, and two days for travel.

While Cowan believes the show has helped his auction business, he believes there are other factors which are more important to its success.
“I think our reputation and integrity have been more important. We’re careful in our descriptions and scrupulously honest. People trust us. At least 50 and sometimes as much as 90 percent of the sales made at Cowan’s auctions are made to people who are not in the sales room, who have not physically seen or touched the piece they purchase. That says a lot about the trust that people have for us.”

Surprisingly, he advises people to take advantage of the slackening economy and buy now.

“The current economic climate is good because there are people who like to spend their money on objects they can see and hold rather than abstractions like stocks. It’s a great opportunity to buy because the market is depressed and people are selling to raise money.”

Finally, we asked him what objects he has sold over the years have given him the greatest thrill. He quickly mentioned three: a rare daguerreotype of John Brown as a clean shaven, younger man; Sitting Bull’s Whitney revolver; and George Armstrong Custer’s camp chair. Another object that he expects to elicit a similar thrill, he says, is being offered at one of his auctions next spring, a picture of Abraham Lincoln given to him at his first inauguration.

Cowan did admit it was a difficult question because so many objects and their stories have given him thrills over the years. But it was time to end the interview. He had to go to his pottery class. No he wasn’t the teacher, he was the student.

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