Collectors and museums are excited about the Oct. 21 auction of a rare piece of early Kentucky furniture: a tall desk made for a prominent pioneer and passed down through six generations of his family.
The desk was built for Capt. John Cowan (1748-1823), a Pennsylvanian who helped survey land that is now Louisville in 1773. The next year, he was a founder of Harrodsburg, the state’s first town, and in 1784, he helped John Filson create the first map of Kentucky, which included his plantation near Danville.
Family lore says the desk, which stands 8½ feet tall, was made by a “traveling cabinet maker” who fell ill and was nursed back to health on Cowan’s plantation. Inside the desk is an inscription “1796 MJ”, likely for Cowan and his wife, Mary.
“In my opinion, this is the most significant piece of Kentucky furniture that has ever come to public auction,” said Wes Cowan of Cowan Auctions in Cincinnati, who is not related to the pioneer. “It is the only piece of Kentucky cased furniture … from this period that is known to exist.”
After Cowan’s wife died in 1837, the desk was passed down to each generation’s youngest son. It was sold in 1996 by the last, who has no descendants.
Ian Patton, who retires this week as operations manager for the Bloomington, Ind., transit system, said his late mother bought the desk from the last Cowan descendant who owned it. He is selling it to settle her estate.
“I hate to see it go,” Patton said. “But I don’t want to commit myself to living in a house with 9½-foot ceilings for the rest of my life.”
Wes Cowan said he plans to begin the bidding at $25,000 and conservatively estimates a price of $50,000 to $75,000. But given the piece’s rarity, and the soaring prices of early Kentucky antiques in recent years, the bidding could go much higher.
“I believe it is an important piece of early Kentucky furniture and will draw a lot of interest from both institutions and private collectors,” said Mack Cox of Richmond, a leading collector and scholar of early Kentucky decorative arts. Cox said he is among those interested in the desk.
Research by Cox and his wife, Sharon, has revealed that highly skilled furniture makers came to Kentucky much earlier than previously thought, attracted by the wealth being generated by the new state’s agriculture and trade.
The Speed Museum in Louisville is among the museums with significant collections of early Kentucky furniture. Much of the Speed’s collection came from longtime collectors Bob and Norma Noe of Wilmore. In addition to the Coxes, there are several other major private collectors.
“It’s generating a lot of attention,” said Cowan, who has heard from several museums and collectors.
The Chippendale-style desk’s maker is unknown. Early Kentucky furniture makers rarely signed their work; experts generally attribute work to craftsmen by looking for similarities in the work. “I’ve yet to correlate the desk to a Kentucky furniture group, so at present it is a one-off thing,” Cox said.
The desk appears to have its original finish, and there is no “secondary” wood used in hidden places; the entire piece is walnut, apparently from the same tree. It is missing a drawer, which disappeared sometime before the 1930s.
The desk has been included in scholarship on early Kentucky furniture many times since the 1930s. And Capt. John Cowan is no longer famous, but at least one Kentucky historian in the 1880s put him on par with Daniel Boone and James Harrod.
“The combination of who it belonged to and when it was made make this piece a remarkable survivor,” Cowan said.