Every executive has read about small start-up companies attempting to break into an intimidating, money-driven world. It seems that for every one that succeeds, a dozen more are driven out, whether it’s Wal-Mart outselling the local stores or McDonald’s beating out the family burger shop.

However, right under our noses, a Cincinnati-based art auction house has risen from the perils of a start-up company to become a major player on the national fine art scene in just a short amount of time.

In 1995, Wes Cowan founded Cowan’s Auctions, hoping to satisfy the largely unfulfilled need for art auction houses in the Midwest. For the first few years, Cowan’s operated with only two employees and produced only $150,000 in sales per year. By 2006, the company had grown to include 28 employees and to produce more than $15 million in annual sales.

How did such a relatively unknown art auction house become so successful in the world of fine art? Cowan believes that many things came into play. “I can’t place my finger on one certain thing, it’s a combination of factors,” he says.

In addition to operating his successful art auction house, Cowan stars on the PBS television series, History Detectives, one of the network’s highest-rated shows. For potential sellers, being able to place a familiar face with a certain auction house can be the difference between auctioning their art through one company over another.

Cowan also markets aggressively, hoping to draw sellers away from the lures of the big auction houses in New York or Chicago. Cowan’s publishes a glossy catalogue filled with full-page glossy pictures and lengthy descriptions of each piece of art in the upcoming auctions. Whether the item is a painting, sculpture, or simply a table piece, Cowan’s visually wows even a person with limited fine art knowledge. The most recent catalog Cowan’s released had 268 pages of products.

The experience of an actual live auction at Cowan’s facility — a 27,000 square foot building on Elmwood Place — has impressed many sellers, and word has spread. Cowan says, “It’s the best auction facility between the two coasts. Period.” With the physical presence of such a large facility bringing together the auction site, sales room, and storage space, Cowan’s possesses a tangible asset, which contributes to its reputation.

Cowan is largely positive about running an auction house in Cincinnati, but says attendance is sometimes lacking. “One of the things I’d love to see is more folks in Cincinnati becoming involved in auctions.”