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American Material Culture

Kentucky Desk and Bookcase Sells for $498,750

John Chaski
 The John Cowan desk and bookcase, photograph courtesy of Cowan's Auction.

The John Cowan desk and bookcase, photograph courtesy of Cowan's Auction.

The sale of the desk and bookcase pictured above at Cowan's Auctions in Cincinnati this past weekend has caused a considerable amount of confusion for some dealers in traditional Americana.  I counted myself among their ranks in the immediate aftermath of the hammer dropping, but after talking to myself for nine hours on the drive east, I think it makes sense. 

"Who spends $498,750 on a $25,000 desk?  We could get them a first-rate Philadelphia carved high chest for that kind of money!  We don't understand these 'others'...our understanding is superior to theirs because we can recognize that that's a $25,000 desk if it was made in Pennsylvania.  They are crazy."

It doesn't make sense if you think there is only one kind of collecting.  So from the beginning let's acknowledge that this sale highlights the fact that regional collectors and generalist collectors of Americana are two different species.  Someone collecting Kentucky decorative arts exclusively could not care less about what a first-rate Philadelphia carved high chest costs right now.  Its bearing on the conversation is zilch.  They may both be pieces of American furniture, but in terms of the marketplace, you may as well be comparing the desk to a Chinese Ru-ware bowl.

It stands to reason that provenance is more important to regional collectors than it is to generalists.  Collectors of stuff made near them tend to come from a background of appreciating history that was made near them.  Collectors who want to build a group that represents the best of American furniture - or even the best of a larger region, like the Delaware Valley - are probably coming from a background of connoisseurship, evaluating an object on the basis of its aesthetic merit.  Neither of those are absolute rules, maybe they are even bad ones.  But I do know that if I wanted to own one of the best Rhode Island block and shell kneehole desks, I wouldn't really care who it was made for, I would care that it's the best.  If it was a second-rate desk (still a six figure piece of furniture) but it belonged to some early governor of RI, who cares.  Call me when you get a nicer one.

A six-figure desk not good enough?  If that isn't crazy - and it's not - why are the factors that motivate regional collectors?  My dad collects Delaware stuff.  He has thousands of pieces of paper that he bought just because of who wrote on them and what they wrote.  Pieces of paper!  Is that crazy, or the basis of the whole historical manuscripts industry?

When superior form and provenance intersect in a regional marketplace, look out.  Regional collectors have already set themselves up for not finding as much to buy, accepting that the law of supply and demand will not be in their favor as they build their collection.  It will be hard to find, and cost a lot.  If they liked poker, they'd likely adopt a TAG style of play.  They're interested in a Tight range of objects but when they look down at one in that range they pursue it AGgressively. 

Would the Cowan desk be worth a lot less if it was made in Philadelphia, sure, so what.  As Kentucky furniture goes, it is a masterpiece.  As Kentucky history goes, it's about as early and important as it gets.  And the documentation is meticulous.  To use an overused phrase, it's a once in a lifetime opportunity.  It's Caesar Rodney's carved up Rococo desk and bookcase in great condition, signed by the Delaware cabinetmaker.  That doesn't exist that I know of, but if you find it, you me and stuff.

The price of the Cowan desk doesn't change anything but that doesn't mean it's a fluke either; it highlights the passion of a community of collectors who were there all along.  It demonstrates that when an opportunity like this comes along, they are willing to pony up the cash.  Come to think of it, those collectors aren't "other" at all, they're just like us.