Issue #71  4/9/2004
Cowan Auction Features Full-Plate Dag of San Francisco, Plus Cased Images, Civil War Imagery and Western Material

Cowan's Historic Americana Auctions is holding its Historic America Auction Sale on May 20-22 at 11 am near Cincinnati, OH at the Sharonville Convention Center at 11355 Chester Road. You can preview at the site, which is in Sharonville, from 9 am until the beginning of the sale itself. Or you can see the auction online.

There are more than 1,491 lots in the full three-day sale, although there are only a few hundred photography-specific lots. But that amount still makes Cowan one of the top auction houses for 19th-century American photography.

For photography collectors, the days that count are the first two days May 20-21, when Cowan's will auction off a huge assortment of early photography.

On the first day, offerings include numerous larger plate daguerreotypes (and other hard images), featuring a magnificent Robert Vance full-plate daguerreotype of San Francisco, c.1856. The daguerreotype was taken about May 15th or 16th, 1856 at the height of the activities of the city's second Committee of Vigilance. This striking image shows the front of Smiley, Yerkes and Company Auctioneers and Commission Merchants at the corner of Sacramento and Montgomery Streets. The black crepe and banner on the building reads, "The Great Man Has Fallen. We Mourn His Loss." and commemorates the assassination of muckraking newspaper editor James King of William.

On the evening of May 14th, King (who had legally changed his name adding "of William" to distinguish himself from another James King) was gunned down by rival newspaper editor and local politician James P. Casey. Casey, editor of the Sunday Times, was incensed when King's Evening Bulletin ran an article accusing him of election fraud and being an ex-convict; his response was the cold-blooded shooting of King as he walked down a San Francisco street. When King died a few days later, the city rose up in arms. A mob of vigilantes removed Casey from the sheriff's office and lynched him from an abandoned liquor warehouse.

San Francisco's Committee of Vigilance was first organized in 1851, in response to lawlessness accompanying the Gold Rush boom. This group--reputable businessmen and other citizens--saw it as their reasonable duty to suppress crime when local law enforcement failed. Ne'er do wells and criminals were rounded up and forced to leave the city, and in some cases faced the ultimate penalty: public lynching. In both 1851 and 1856, the Committee's actions proved successful in bringing order to what had become a virtually lawless city. T. J. L. Smiley, whose building is depicted in this daguerreotype, was a charter member of the first Committee of Vigilance.

The estimate on this historically important daguerreotype is an obviously ridiculously low $30,000-$50,000. It is easily worth more than triple the high estimate.

Rounding out the first day, are numerous lots of Western material, including images by William H. Jackson, Timothy O'Sullivan (Darien Expedition), Charles R. Savage, George Trager (the massacre at Wounded Knee), L.A. Huffman and many others. Images range from photographs of George Armstrong Custer to Indian and Eskimo portraits to Oklahoma land rush photographs. There are several especially strong albums of American Indian images, including an anonymous album containing prints of a Blackfoot sun dance ceremony. Other photo lots include a nice selection of images of Wild West Show performers, such as Buffalo Bill. Cabinets and cdvs of important photographer's studios and promotional cards round out the Western category.

On the second day, the Civil War takes the foreground. As usual, Cowan's has assembled a stunning array of both hard and paper images relating to this conflict. Both the north and south are well represented in tintype, ambrotype and cdv format. For larger paper image collectors, an archive of nine oval albumen images showing the activities of the First Wisconsin Heavy Artillery at Battery Rodgers outside of Washington, D.C. and a group of large images of the 50th New York Engineers building a pontoon bridge are especially compelling.

You can reach Wes Cowan by phone at 1-513-871-1670 and by email at info@historicamericana.com . Phones can still be reserved for the sale and you can bid on line at eBay Live Bid. You can visit the company's website at: http://www.historicamericana.com or go to to see the full online catalogue for the sale.

One tip: Wes does not include all of the photography in the sale in the photography category (!), so if you do "Browse the Auction by Category" area, please realize that you need to check out other categories, such as "Civil War", "Wild West Shows" and "Western America", besides the "Early Photography" section to see more of it. In fact the full-plate daguerreotype of San Francisco is under "Western America".