Treasure: Lithograph may depict famous steamboat race

Khristi Zimmeth
Special to The Detroit News

One good deed deserves another, as the old adage goes. Bruce Lewke knows that firsthand.

In the 1980, he volunteered to help a friend who was doing some work on his condominium. “He was dangerous with tools,” he joked, “so I told him I’d help him out.” In payment, that friend gave him a lithograph, one he said dated to the 19th century and that it was designed to shine light through it from behind.

“If you hold it up it looks a lot better,” Lewke told appraiser Brian Thomczek at a recent Trash or Treasure day held at Judy Frankel Antiques in Troy. “It has a sort of 3D effect which can only be seen when there’s light involved and it’s better displayed.”

Lewke said he had it appraised in 2000 and was told it was from the 1920s or 1930s. It measures 31.5 by 22 inches and he believes it depicts a race between the Natchez and the Robert E. Lee.

According to internet research, Thomczek said that the Robert E. Lee, named for the Confederate general, won a famed steamboat race against the Natchez in 1870. The Lee, which usually ran between New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi, made the trip from St. Louis to New Orleans for the race in 3 days and 18 hours. The ship caught fire in an 1882 accident in which 21 people died.

“In 2000 I was told it was worth $1,800 at that time. I’m wondering what its current value is,” Lewke wrote in the original email.

Marked “Donaldson Art Sign Company,” the print shows two steamboats, with the Robert E. Lee, in the forefront, under a moonlit sky. “Steamboat races were a popular subject at the time, with that one especially catching the American imagination,” says the appraiser.

That fits, says Lewke. “My friend got it in Ohio.” He said he had never noticed the manufacturer’s information. “All this time I’ve had it I never looked in the corner.”

According to, “The Donaldson Art Sign Company in Covington and the Donaldson Lithography Company in Newport can be traced back to a partnership between William M. Donaldson and Henry Elms. These two entrepreneurs began a small lithography business in Cincinnati on August 10, 1863. By the end of the first year of operation, the firm owned and operated seven hand printing presses. With the death of Mr. Elms in 1872, the business became the sole property of Donaldson. The company was officially incorporated as the Donaldson Lithograph Co. in 1883.” Lithography work was done on iron, tin, glass and other metals as well as on paper.

Lewke has long had it hanging on the living room wall in various locations that he has lived through the years. “I moved to Europe and have lived in both the U.S. and the Netherlands, so it’s made quite a journey.”

Thomczek says the value would be closer to $250-$300 in its current condition and that it will last for many more journeys if properly cared for. He recommended having it reframed using acid-free materials. “This is a nice frame, but overtime the paper will discolor and that would impact its ultimate value,” he told him. “It’s a very, very interesting piece and there would probably be a continuing market for it you take care of it.”

Do you have an object you would like to know more about? Send a photo and description that includes how you acquired the object to: The Detroit News, Trash or Treasure?, 160 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226. Include your name and daytime telephone number. You may also send your photo and description to If chosen you’ll need to bring the items to an appraisal session. Letters are edited for style and clarity. Photos cannot be returned.

About this item

Item: Lithograph

Owner: Bruce Lewke

Appraised by: Brian Thomczek

Estimated value: $250-$300