|By Elizabeth Johnson
CINCINNATI — Three minutes away from the intended destination, but a finicky GPS unit insists on plotting a course half-way across Cincinnati and claims there are still 15 minutes to go. In a sense, it seemed fitting for the April 10-12 Americana sale held by Cowan’s Auctions, filled with hard-to-find pieces even modern technology would have a difficult time discovering.
Featuring items from the estates of the late Jane Murphy of Shandon, Ohio, and the late Kenneth Erwin of Portland, Mich. Day one of the sale was composed of 500 uncataloged lots from the Murphy estate, and days two and three offered more than 900 cataloged lots from both collections, with some additions.
In their respective states, the two long-time Midwestern dealers/collectors were well regarded for their depth of knowledge and keen eye. At the start of Friday’s session, every seat in the showroom was filled, and auction catalogs flagged with bouquets of colorful page markers were prevalent.
The Kenneth Erwin Estate
Erwin was passionate about antiques. “I was flabbergasted. Every room, every drawer, every nook and cranny was filled with Americana,” Wes Cowan, president and principal auctioneer for Cowan’s Auctions, wrote after visiting the home. “It was impossible to see it all. There was simply too much.”
Culled from Erwin’s diverse collection, the top lot of the sale was hard to miss. A monumental double-handled stoneware merchant’s jug, the incised and cobalt-painted inscription reading “WH Triphugen Esq / Pewamo, Mich,” opened at $10,000 and was hammered down at $25,200 (includes premium). The 20-gallon vessel, probably of Ohio origin and dating to the 19th century, was also decorated with a 26-star American flag in cobalt. Cowan referred to the piece as “a Midwestern stoneware trophy.”
William Henry Triphagen, whose last name was incorrectly spelled on the jug, was a grocer. The auction house theorized he may have commissioned the piece to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Michigan’s admission to the Union.
Erwin’s assemblage of patriotic items was impressive. A large metal shield painted with the design of an American flag, having 44 stars on the blue field, with holders for flags on the back, 20th century, 29 1/4 inches high by 27 inches wide, realized $4,800; and a shield flag holder with 13 stars, surmounted by a stamped-brass eagle with outstretched wings, circa 1860 to 1870, 20 1/4 inches high by 21 1/2 inches wide, sold for $1,560.
A scarce broadside advertising the route of the steamboat Telegraph on Lake Ontario, dated July 14, 1837, and featuring an illustration of the ship, was bid to $3,900 against an estimate of $300 to $500. As bid cards started popping up across the room, Cowan remarked, “I thought it would do this. Find another, really.”
Erwin was especially fond of Shaker boxes, and an oval example in chromium-yellow paint attracted a good deal of interest, selling for $3,900. Having a pine top and bottom, the bent maple sides joined by three fingers and copper tacks, the box was 3 1/4 inches high and 12 inches wide.
A double-sided, polychrome-painted, sheet-iron game board of American origin also realized $3,900. In vibrant colors and measuring 18 inches square, it featured a checkerboard on one side and Parcheesi on the other. “Boy what a great game board,” Cowan said. “If this was wood, it would be ’Katy, bar the door.’ “
Representative of Erwin’s eclectic tastes, a phrenologist’s ivory cane head, 6 3/4 inches high plus a wooden pillar-form base, sold for $3,360; large Hubley ladder truck with five wooden ladders plus an undercarriage bell and an additional driver, the cast-iron toy a transitional piece pairing a horse-drawn carriage with a Christie tractor, 27 inches long, $3,360; oil-on-canvas painting depicting a whaler poised with harpoon, the work of Henry Jarvis Peck (American, 1880-1964), $2,829; and a 19th-century, silverplated fire trumpet with trees and flowers in relief, initialed J.L.C. and with a partially illegible maker’s mark, 23 inches long, brought $1,140.
A signed canteen probably dating to the War of 1812 brought the entire bank of phone operators to their feet when it was offered. “There’s a lot of interest in this,” said Cowan, who noted there were also 10 to 15 bidders on the Internet. In original blue paint, with two hand-wrought bands and a leather strap, the canteen realized $1,320. It was stamped “J. Slemmer” on its face, possibly for Jacob Slemmer, a Pennsylvania cooper.
A teardrop-shaped Ohio soda bottle in green glass, dating to the 1830s, sold for $738. The rare paper label proclaimed “Instant Cure of Pain” and featured signs of the zodiac. Although parts of the label had flaked off, “Established at Maumee City, Ohio” was still readable. “You’re never gonna find another one, I guarantee you,” Cowan said.
For more information, contact Kirstie Craven at (513) 871-1670 or see www.cowans.com