Cowan's Corner

Collector's Showdown For Hot Western Collectibles

By Wes Cowan  

The definition of what is considered the "West" has certainly changed over the years. When there were only thirteen colonies, any territory west of the Appalachians was considered the "West." The vast Northwest Territory included what is known today as Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan and Wisconsin.

For years, collectors have placed a premium on things associated with U.S. westward expansion. These items of interest include books, printed materials, photographs, firearms and other weapons, and cowboy and Indian artifacts. You name it, and there are serious collectors willing to spend big bucks to acquire choice artifacts.

A prime example is a book known as the Maxwell Code, a work of exceptional rarity. Named for William Maxwell who printed it in Cincinnati in 1796, the book contains the first codified laws designed to regulate life on the frontier. No one knows the exact print run, but it is estimated to be as few as 200 copies. The best existing copy of this important volume sold in 1997 for just over $80,000.

In a similar vein, the first published account of Lewis and Clark's expedition up the Missouri River is a holy grail for collectors. A copy of the book routinely sells in the $10,000 to $15,000 range. Lewis and Clark's own personal account of the expedition fetches far more. The two-volume set was not published until 1814. One copy, complete with a folding map to illustrate their route, recently sold for a staggering $130,000.

After the Civil War, the lands west of the Mississippi River became known as the "West." The government sent teams of scientists into these territories. Photographers accompanied the teams and produced a remarkable record of the land and its inhabitants. The books and images from these expeditions are highly prized by collectors.

William Henry Jackson was a Washington, D.C.-based photographer who accompanied a team during an 1872 expedition. He explored present-day Wyoming. His photographs of the magical lands along the Yellowstone River were used to convince Congress to set aside the first national park in the United States. Photographs from this expedition typically fetch between $3,000 and $5,000.

While these prices may not fit the budget of all collectors, many fine Western books and photographs can be purchased for far less. The range is vast and a person of modest means can assemble a fascinating collection.


About the author: Wes Cowan is founder and owner of Cowan's Auctions, Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio. An internationally recognized expert in historic Americana, Wes stars in the PBS television series History Detectives and is a featured appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. He can be reached via email at info@cowans.com.

 

The Maxwell Code, the first book printed in the American "West"; 1796.

William Henry Jackson took this photograph of the future Yellowstone National Park in 1872.

The first account of the Lewis and Clark Expedition 

 

 

 

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