Wes Cowan owns and operates Cowan's Auctions Inc. in the Cincinnati neighborhood of Linwood. Viewers of the popular PBS series, Antiques Roadshow, recognize him as one of the program's appraisers. He's also one of the History Detectives, another PBS series in its second season (it airs at 9 p.m. Mondays). Traveling the country, he investigates the authenticity of historical items. Cowan recently spent time in and around Cincinnati, checking the origins of a saddle that might have belonged to Confederate Gen. John Hunt Morgan. Cowan couldn't verify its authenticity, but he compiled a lot of interesting evidence and expert opinions along the way.
CityBeat: How did you first become involved with the Antiques Roadshow?
WC: When the Antiques Roadshow came to town eight years ago, I called the producers at WGBH in Boston and asked if they wanted any local appraisers.
CB: And how did you get the History Detectives gig?
WC: The History Detectives producers, I'm fairly sure, found me through the Antiques Roadshow.
CB: Where do the story ideas come from for History Detectives?
WC: (The producers will) typically get a story idea and e-mail me and say, "What do you think?"
I'll say, "Yeah, you ought be pursuing this, and here are the people you should be talking to right away."
CB: Do any suggestions come through your business in Linwood?
WC: The Morgan saddle is a perfect example. The gentleman (from Paris, Ky.) contacted me, and I said, "This would be a great story."
CB: How much groundwork is done before an item is chosen?
WC: I don't know that a whole lot of groundwork is done before they're chosen. Once a story is chosen, the production company puts a team of researchers on it. They spend anywhere from 30 days to six weeks doing the research before the actual filming starts.
CB: How many days did you spend on the Morgan saddle shoot?
WC: Five days.
CB: Do you ever find out that a crime was involved in the way an item was obtained?
WC: Not yet. There's been at least one story where one of the characters was a criminal. We discovered that in the course of the investigation. He was an art forger. He made a bunch of portraits of colonial and Revolutionary War figures and signed them and tried to pass them off as Gilbert Stuart and other famous artists of the period. This was in the 1930s and 1940s.
CB: Do any items turn out to be outright hoaxes?
WC: The field is like any other field where there's money involved. There are scam artists and con people. I wouldn't say the industry is overrun with it by any means, (but) there are certainly plenty of them out there.
CB: The show really seems like CSI without the ickiness.
WC: I think that PBS billed the series, initially, as a cross between the Antiques Roadshow and CSI. What you get in History Detectives is where Antiques Roadshow leaves off. You get somebody talking about the object, but not how they know about it, where (as on) History Detectives we show you how they found out about it.
CB: Do you enjoy the investigative aspect of it?
WC: Most of my adult life was spent as an archeologist, so I've always been interested in unraveling these sorts of things.
CB: The Morgan saddle is the only local case you've investigated. You must have to travel an awful lot.
WC: I travel all over the place. I've been in just about every major airport in the country in the past two years.
CB: But you really enjoy it.
WC: I think part of the fun and the privilege for the show for me is being able to go to a lot of places that relate to American history, being invited to behind-the-scenes situations and meeting people with great stories. ©