By Aaron M. Smith
CINCINNATI -- Two days before an antiques auction that will net more than $784,000 in sales, the scene in Wes Cowan’s state-of-the-art, 27,000-square-foot auction facility in Cincinnati is that of controlled chaos. The first to welcome each visitor is Scout, Cowan’s golden Labrador you could swear is smiling. Ringing telephones provide a rhythmic soundtrack while employees race to prepare the nearly 500 fine and decorative arts lots for Saturday evening. Under a few dimmed lights, the auction stage sits waiting.
Wearing blue jeans and a pink dress shirt, Cowan (Ph.D. ’85) leans back in his chair with his hands behind his head and takes a deep breath.
“We’re getting there,” he says.
The truth is, though, Cowan is already there.
Since Cowan’s Auctions opened in a renovated Cincinnati-area garage in 1995, the business has exploded and now generates nearly $20 million in annual sales. Cowan himself pounds the gavel as the auctioneer — at least when he’s not filming the PBS series Antiques Roadshow and History Detectives. Cowan’s ardor for artifacts and history’s secrets was born when he was an adolescent living in his mother’s antique-filled Victorian-era home in Louisville, Kentucky. There, he quite literally was the curator of his own museum.
“The entire third floor of that house was mine,” he remembers. “I had collections of antiques, fossils, Indian artifacts, and other natural history specimens. I put all of that stuff on display; it basically became my museum.”
At age 15, a budding archaeology buff, Cowan wanted more experiences than solo expeditions in the fields of his relatives’ western Kentucky farms could provide. So he participated in a University of Kentucky (U-K) trip with graduate students where he learned “a lot about how to do an archaeological dig and a little about drinking beer.” He kept his ties with the university and later earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in anthropology from U-K in 1974 and 1977, respectively.
Yet it took just 10 minutes for Cowan to pick Michigan over North Carolina when deciding where to conduct his doctorate research. Following a Society of American Archaeology meeting, Cowan discussed his options with Michigan’s Richard Ford, a professor and curator at the Museum of Anthropology.
“I knew that Michigan was the place for me to go. It was the only place I applied to. There was no question that [Ford] was the guy I wanted to study with.”
It didn’t take Ford that long to realize Cowan was the perfect candidate to study at Michigan.
“He was a very engaging person,” says Ford, who is now retired and living in New Mexico. “He had a mind that was looking for new directions of explanations in terms of archaeology. When he got to Michigan, he took on a leadership role. I helped him obtain money; that was my job as a mentor. But he ran the whole thing.”
Even though Cowan is no longer in the field, he says the tutelage of Ford and other professors at Michigan opened the doors to his current success.
“I was exposed to new ways of thinking in ways I never had before,” says Cowan, who recently established an endowment at Michigan that helps anthropology students fund their radiocarbon dating and other dating technologies. “I use the training I received at Michigan every day in my job, even though I’m an auctioneer. The ability for me to critically think and know how to research, I attribute that to the way I was trained to think at Michigan.”
Although Cowan enjoys his profession as an auctioneer, he readily admits that working with the PBS series allows him to delve deeper into his passions. Working as an appraiser for Antiques Roadshow gives Cowan recognition among antique collectors throughout the country and it led to his role on History Detectives, which is in its seventh season.
Whether researching bullets said to be linked with the deaths of Bonnie and Clyde, or conversing with Dr. Francis Bonner in his Long Island backyard about his role in the top-secret Manhattan Project, Cowan’s passion for highlighting the alluring stories that history books tend to neglect never wavers.
“I feel very privileged to be doing this,” he says. “I get to go places and see things and do things that the average American will never get to do. I get to meet people who are experts in American history that most people wouldn’t get to talk to. It’s an honor, really.”