March 8, 2012

wes c.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                    wes c./cowan's auctions

     One day, with an email, you cold-call a person who could very easily be considered a celebrity. You ask if he would be willing to appear in your blog.  He has never met you, heard of you, seen your photographs, or read your writing, and yet, you are asking.  The nerve of you.  Much to your delight, a scant few hours later, you receive a gracious reply which includes a phone number.  You call.  He answers.  Moments later, you have firm plans for a photo shoot.  You hang up and think, this guy is really cool for doing this.  

photo by steve metz                                                          antique statue/cowan's auctions

     You are already a fan of all things PBS.  Wes C., your subject, stars in History Detectives, a nationally televised program, now preparing its 10th season on PBS.  He is also a frequent appraiser and historian on Antiques Roadshow.  These are two of your favorite programs.  You are happy but nervous about this assignment.  You realize that Wes is a very busy person and you don't want to absorb a lot of his time on a day when he is already hosting an event at Cowan's Auctions, the internationally acclaimed antiques auction house in Carthage, which he built from the ground up.  So, rather than planning on asking a lot of hurried, naive sounding questions, instead, you read. You research.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                             antique clock detail/cowan's auctions
        You learn that Wes grew up in Louisville, Kentucky and that at a very young age, he decided to pursue archaeology, having become fascinated with Native American artifacts discovered on his grandparents' farm.  You recall your own meanderings on your family's farm in Wooster: the feel and shape of strange, iron tools hanging from old barn walls, the rows of steel cans with half-peeled labels, the hand pump which brought water up from somewhere, the way the sun lit the dancing dust in the spaces between the barn slats.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                    antique music box detail/cowan's auctions

     You learn also, that, soon, Wes would begin to join archaeologists from the University of Kentucky, on excavations.  He was 15 years old.  He would eventually attend UK and earn a B.A and an M.A in anthropology.  A Ph.D. from the University of Michigan would follow.  At 15, YOU were playing Galaga and wondering when are these damn braces are going to come off, you think.

photo by steve metz                                                   antique statuette/cowan's auctions
     You learn that eventually, Wes would become the curator of archaeology at the Natural History Museum of Cincinnati, a position he would hold for 12 years.  You pause for a moment to contemplate the beauty of the museum's current location, Union Terminal, and you think about how lucky we are to have such a place in our town.  You took a beautiful photo there one day...of a girl climbing a rope to the ceiling.  You imagine that Wes is a seminal figure on the landscape of that organization: just one of his many noteworthy accomplishments.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                        antique desk/cowan's auctions
    Most fascinating to you is the fact that Wes would turn a love of 19th century photography into the catalyst for building his now thriving antiques business.  He would start a small mail order company featuring this medium.  He would also, concurrently, expand his own collection, and, eventually, would be able to sell part of it with enough profit to fund his own space.  You are a photographer at heart, and, even though you hadn't known it at the time, you wonder if this mutual passion is, in part, what has drawn you here.

photo by steve metz                                          antique statuette/cowan's auctions
    You arrive at Cowan's, two hours before the day's auction is scheduled to begin.  It's huge, and there are already dozens of cars in the parking lot, and scores of people buzzing about the place.  You open your mind to the possibility that this just isn't going to happen today.  He's going to be swamped.  You walk onto the auction floor.  He is standing there and meets your eye.  Before you can move, he has crossed the floor with an outstretched hand and a huge smile on his face.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                    antique mosaic/cowan's auctions

     Wes shows you around the place and asks you to pick a spot for the photographs.  It's going to happen.  He hasn't forgotten.  He's going to take the time for you.  That smile was real.  You pick a corner where there seem to be fewer people.  There's a particularly lovely, colorful painting there.  Wes asks, is it ok if I grab a quick bite to eat before we do this.  Of course, you say.  You smile inside.  You prop a light on a stand.

photo by steve metz                                                                                                                                   wes c./cowan's auctions
    With the few moments you have while he enjoys a bite to eat, you wander and look at beautiful, lustrous objects.  Seeing these things, you understand his passion.  You don't know the first thing about most of these relics, but they are alluring and seem to breathe a little.  Imagine being able to couple this aesthetic with the history of the objects...with the stories of their lives, you think.  You wonder what your generation is leaving behind which might be wrapped in this kind of mystical splendor.  What will people, generations from now, be able to hold in their hands which came from us?  What will represent us in their imaginations?  You hope that it's at least something.

    Soon, Wes is finished eating.  He stands in front of the pretty painting.  He smiles.  Snap.  This guy is really cool for doing this.

Cowan's Auctions
History Detectives


  1. I'm glad this worked out! Isn't the auction house great?

    1. yes it really is. we're going to attend an auction soon!

  2. Your work speaks volumes... Everyone should return your calls! BEST Paul Miller

  3. your blog and photos are inspiring to me....thanks, c

  4. Another great writing accompanied by stellar photography. Loved it. And the images, I love them. I would love to sit down and talk shop with you one day. Especially since you are shooting lit work as well.

    Keep it up!

    1. thanks a lot justin. i really appreciate the support. it would be cool to chat at some point. steve