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Surprising price for antique Kentucky desk sets auction record

A rare desk made in 1796 for a prominent Kentucky pioneer sold for nearly $500,000 at auction in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. It was the highest price ever paid at auction for a piece of Kentucky furniture, and the second-highest for a piece of Southern furniture.
A rare desk made in 1796 for a prominent Kentucky pioneer sold for nearly $500,000 at auction in Cincinnati on Oct. 21. It was the highest price ever paid at auction for a piece of Kentucky furniture, and the second-highest for a piece of Southern furniture. Cowan Auctions

A desk made in 1796 for a prominent Kentucky pioneer sold Saturday for nearly a half-million dollars — the highest price ever paid at auction for a piece of Kentucky furniture and second-highest for a piece of Southern furniture.

After a 10-minute bidding war, an unidentified bidder bought the desk for $425,000. With the auctioneer’s premium, the total price was $498,750.

“All I can say is that it was a private collector from Kentucky,” said Eric Duncan of Cowan’s Auctions in Cincinnati. “So it’ll stay in the commonwealth.”

Auctioneer Wes Cowan had set a conservative estimated price before the sale of $50,000 to $75,000.

The elaborate Chippendale-style walnut desk was built by an unknown cabinet maker for Capt. John Cowan (1748-1823). Cowan first came to Kentucky as a surveyor in 1773 and the next year helped found Harrodsburg, the state’s oldest town. He helped John Filson make the first map of Kentucky in 1784 and his plantation is identified on it.

The desk had remained in Cowan’s family for 200 years, passing down to the youngest son for six generations. It was sold out of the family in 1996 to a woman in Bloomington, Ind. Her son, Ian Patton of Bloomington, sold it to settle her estate.

Wes Cowan, who is no relation to the pioneer, began the auction at $30,000, but three telephone bidders quickly pushed up the price. The eventual winner was in attendance at the auction in Cincinnati.

The 8½-foot-tall desk and bookcase is the finest piece of Kentucky-made furniture that old known to exist. By about 1800, many skilled furniture makers immigrated to the young state, attracted by clients who had become wealthy from agriculture and trade.

“The piece demonstrates conclusively that the market recognized this as an incomparable rarity,” Cowan said in a news release. “For scholars of Kentucky furniture, it is validation for what some have said for years: That great high-style furniture was being made in the 18th century Bluegrass region.”

Tom Eblen: 859-231-1415, @tomeblen

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