Cowan's Sells Important Early Photography In American History Premier Auction

Unique Joel Whitney Album Containing Photos Of Sioux Involved In 1862 Minnesota Uprising Fetches Astonishing $131,250

July 5, 2019

Cowan's solidified itself among the market leaders in early photography, selling two important lots of 19th-century photography for a combined $212,500 in its American History: Premier Auction on June 21. An exceptional Joel Whitney album of Sioux involved in the 1862 Minnesota Uprising and an exceedingly rare photograph of fugitive slaves posed with abolitionists Levi Coffin and Jonathan Cable went for more than 10 times their estimates, selling for $131,250 and $81,250, respectively. Prices reported include a 25-percent buyer’s premium.
“Early photography is how it all started for Cowan’s, and this auction was really a celebration of our roots,” said Katie Horstman, Cowan’s director of American History. “It’s easy to get hung up on the big prices for these two incredible lots, but we really saw great results across the entire category.”
The Joel Whitney album represented a truly unique piece of Minnesota history. Whitney (1822-86) is considered Minnesota's finest pioneer photographer but was mostly known for carte-de-visite (CDV), or small format photography. The photographs in the album, however, were a much larger format, with the largest measuring 7-by-9.25 inches.
What made the album unique, however, was the subject matter. While the album contained a handful of scenic photos, the bulk of the album consisted of Whitney’s famous studies of the Sioux Indians, many of whom were involved in the 1862 Sioux Uprising.
The new state of Minnesota was home to thousands of American Indians in 1862, many of whom were disenchanted with the government's promise for annuities. In August of that year, a number of Native Americans were starving; on the 18th, Indians at the Lower Agency attacked the white settlers there. Over the next few weeks, hundreds of settlers were killed, until the uprising was finally put down by federal troops. Included in the album were a number of the Native American principals involved with the uprising. Cut Nose, for one, was charged with the murder of 18 women and children and five men and admitted to the brutal murder of several settlers in response to the U.S. Army reneging on its treaty obligations. He was hanged with 37 others on Dec. 26, 1862.
Absentee bidding required the bidding to begin at $13,000, $3,000 above the lot’s low estimate. The six phone bidders vying for the lot were hardly phased. A frenzy of bidding quickly sent the lot past its maximum absentee bid of $30,000 with three phone bidders still actively involved. Only two phone bidders remained as the lot approached six figures, and at $105,000 the hammer finally fell, awarding the lot to a private collector. With the 25-percent buyer’s premium, the total price realized for the lot was $131,250.
It was especially appropriate for an important photograph of abolitionists Levi Coffin and Jonathan Cable to be offered in Cowan’s Cincinnati, Ohio, salesroom, as the city played a vital role in the men’s role in the Underground Railroad. Coffin and Cable collaborated on the “Escape of the 28” in 1853, one of the Unground Railroad’s most ambitious operations, which conveyed 28 enslaved men, women, and children from Boone County, Ky., safely north to Canada. Though the individuals shown in the photograph with Coffin and Cable cannot be definitively identified as members of the “Escape of the 28,” they likely benefited from Coffin and Cable’s involvement in abolitionist groups and the Underground Railroad.
There were several other standouts in the early photography category, though. A pair of Civil War CDVs of the famous, yet mysterious Frances Clayton went for well above estimate, selling for $13,750. The lot featured two photographs: one with Clayton in a dark dress with full sleeves and white cuff, the other showing her in a Union soldier’s uniform complete with Hardee hat and a foot officer’s sword. Other highlights included a Buffalo Bill Cody rare orotone portrait that sold for $10,000; an autographed CDV of Métis leader Louis Riel for $8,125; an unpublished autographed CDV of Robert E. Lee for $5,625; and an occupational half plate ambrotype of a photographer posed with his daguerreotype camera for $5,000.
Two lots of political ephemera achieved five-figure prices on the day. A banner carried in the procession of the “Great Harrison Barbecue” in Zanesville, Ohio, during William Henry Harrison’s successful campaign for president in 1840 sold for $22,500. The paint and ink-on-linen banner depicts an express rider during the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 announcing “Harrison has whipt the British & Indians.” The second piece of ephemera was a significant Libertas Americana medal, a commemorative medal designed by Benjamin Franklin in honor of the American victory at Yorktown, which sold for $10,625.
The top archive of the day was the World War II archive of Russell E. Gackenbach, the navigator of Necessary Evil, one of the three strike planes that carried out the first wartime use of an atomic bomb at Hiroshima. The archive included the only non-government photograph of the mushroom cloud of Hiroshima that resides in private hands. The archive also included Gackenbach’s personal Agfa PB 20 Viking camera that he smuggled onboard the plane to take the photo.
Gackenbach managed to take two photos of this watershed moment of human history. The first was donated to the archives of Lehigh University, making this the only known image ever made available to collectors. The archive sold for $20,000.
Other highlights from the auction included a Confederate archive of Private James Monroe Geer, 1st South Carolina Regiment, rifles that sold for $8,125; a Civil War hand-drawn map of the “Siege of Suffolk, Virginia,” by Private William Gragg, 6th Massachusetts Infantry, for $8,125; the Civil War archive of Captain William R. Hoel, USN Mississippi River Squadron, for $7,680; the Civil War diaries of Jared P. Hubbard, 2nd New Hampshire Volunteers, for $6,875; and the Van Lew Family Archive, including letters from Civil War spymaster Elizabeth Van Lew and slave-turned-spy Mary Bowser, for $6,250.
To contact Cowan’s main office in Cincinnati, Ohio, call 513-871-1670 or email


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