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Conversation

'Not Just a Chair'

A Conversation with Leigh Keno about Reclaiming Our Past

HUMANITIES, September/October 2002 | Volume 23, Number 5

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole talked recently with Leigh Keno, an expert on American antiques, about what these objects can tell us about our history. Leigh Keno, who has an antiques business in New York City and his brother Leslie, a senior specialist at Sotheby's, are two stars of public television's Antiques Roadshow.

Bruce Cole: People know you from Antiques Roadshow and from your book. You’ve done a lot to raise the knowledge of American furniture in the United States. Maybe you can tell us a little about how you got started.

Leigh Keno: Les and I grew up in upstate New York, in Mohawk, on a farm. Our parents were antique dealers--Dad still is--and we grew up going to flea markets and riding around the countryside on motorcycles looking for all sorts of treasures. It was a wonderful place. Our parents had a shop right there in the house, and we were constantly around dealers and collectors coming in to look at things.

By the age of twelve, we started a diary. It was 1969. It says, “Leigh and Leslie Keno, twelve years old. We are antique dealers.” So we were very sure of what we wanted to do.

Cole: One of the reasons that I admire dealers is that they know the things on a level that most art historians don’t. They handle the object and also they have to make certain kinds of judgments about it.

Keno: Leslie and I at one point in our lives almost went into the museum field. As a dealer, you constantly make decisions on authenticity.

Cole: In your book, Hidden Treasures, you describe collecting bottles and then door hinges from barns around your farm. How did you get from door hinges to becoming experts in American furniture?

Keno: From door hinges we went to salt glazed stoneware. We eventually sold that to pay for college.

But a lot is hands-on. The nice thing about a piece of furnitureis that, like a vintage car, you can look inside, take it apart, and just pick it up. You can get the sense of it. I tell young people today that if they can pick things up and hold them and smell them and feel them, they’re learning about the object. That’s a really important thing.

You’re a well-known paintings expert. You’ve written some fine books about painting. But even with a picture I would guess you like to look at the structure behind the canvas.

Cole: Oh, yes. One of the best ways to know something about any work of art is to touch it, turn it around, know it inside and out. It gives you an understanding of the work of art that is much more profound. It’s one thing to read about works of art and see photographs, but it’s an entirely other thing to confront something in reality. You started by digging objects up and classifying them. This was a way to learn?

Keno: It was. When we brought a piece back, we would take out what books we had and we’d see if we could find it in the book. We had Wallace Nuttings’s Furniture Treasury, the big, blue volume that’s about as thick as a New York telephone book. It’s what we fell asleep with every night.

We owe a lot to our parents. Our father--Dad’s 71--constantly taught us to look at things. If we were driving to get milk at the store, he’d look up at a Greek revival house and say, “Look at that--the cornice on that building” or “Do you see those arches?” I try to do the same thing today with my young son.

The other day, he looked up at the building across the street and said, “Daddy, Gothic. That’s Gothic, right?” I told him once that Gothic has a rocket-ship type of window. There was this man standing there and he says, “Your kid knows what Gothic windows are?”--and he’s like four-and-a-half. I’m pretty proud, you know?

So I hope that I can pass on that, what my dad passed on to us.

Cole: You have to understand the things and the physicality of the things. You know that. You’ve handled literally thousands of objects.

Keno: I learn every day. Every Roadshow, for instance, you learn so much just from looking at these objects. If you look at three or four items in a month, signed and dated, made by so-and-so, and from a particular state, you’re going to naturally learn about objects from that area or period. It’s only by looking at thousands of objects that you get a broad sense of decorative arts.

Cole: I believe that great pieces of furniture are great works of art, comparable to the most important painting or sculpture. I know you feel that way, but can you tell me why that is?

Keno: Can I articulate it? That’s the question. Let’s take this block-front chest in front of us. It’s a Boston block-front chest with a wonderful shaped front and bracket feet. You know this was made by a craftsman. If he had just wanted to make a chest that would hold something, it could have had a straight front, it could be made of pine, and it would have exactly the same function as this chest does. But this chest was made of imported figured mahogany and these drawer fronts are shaped out of a solid piece of mahogany. The dovetails are beautifully cut. This person was proud of what he did.

The thing about a great piece of furniture is that it just speaks to you. One thing I hope we learn from the Roadshow is that a chair is not just a chair and every piece has a story to tell.

Cole: There’s also a very sculptural quality to furniture, the way that it moves out into space or the way that space penetrates it. One of the things you talk about that intrigues me is the “personality” of furniture.

Keno: Each piece does have its own personality. The wonderful thing about American furniture is regionalism. We’re sitting in a room right now surrounded with various pieces, and to me it’s like sitting at the United Nations with people from several countries and I can identify them from their clothes or their flag or their accents. This is a Massachusetts clock. This is a New York kneehole desk from 1760. This is a Salem high chest, a Boston veneered dressing table. We go around the room and there are six or seven states represented.

This chair in the corner is a heart and crown chair. It’s an early painted banister-back chair. You could try to collect just heart and crown chairs, like that one, you know? That is what makes American furniture collecting fascinating. Not to put down English furniture collecting, because there are fabulous English things. But with American furniture, regionalism makes it fun.Collectors can also put together a reference library to research as they collect.

Cole: One of the things we’re beginning at the National Endowment for the Humanities is an initiative called “We the People.” We hope to help people in the understanding of our history and of our culture. We want to try to figure out who we are and where we came from and maybe where we’re going. Obviously early American furniture is an expression of early American culture. What can you say about that? What makes American furniture American?

Keno: That’s a good question. One part of the answer is physical. The woods used are very often Americangrown. This New England high chest is made of figured maple that almost certainly is American. The secondary wood is white pine, which grew in abundance in New England. Then
there are the quirks of the piece: the way the fan is carved, the drop pendants, which are quite eccentric, compressed balls with a shaft and a ball below, and the shape of the legs, the shape of the skirt. All those are distinctly American. And speaking more specifically, you see a certain whimsical aspect about this piece that says “Connecticut.”

Cole: What does a piece of eighteenth-century furniture tell us about the history of the time?

Keno: Take this desk, for instance, from the Dey family. The very size of it and the expensive cast brass hardware and elaborately carved elements, as well as the cedar secondary wood--cedar was used to keep insects and moths away--indicate that the family was probably quite wealthy. We’re in the middle of researching it, but there may have been some merchants in the family. Was it a fabric merchant’s or was it a bookkeeper’s desk for the office?

We can learn many things. For instance, if we look at furniture owned by Quakers in Philadelphia, we find some rather ornate pieces. Despite what we think about Quakers as being against unnecessary displays of wealth, some of the pieces owned by the most prominent families are pretty flashy--high chests with carved rosettes, rococo brasses, and carved fan drawers, pieces made to impress, believe me.

Cole: You’ve talked about regional differences that are part of early American furniture. Would you find regional differences in furniture in England or is that a particularly American thing?

Keno: When you see English furniture cataloged, it’s George I, George II, and George III. Research over the last ten or fifteen years has made some strides in attempting to regionalize the furniture made in England, but most of the high style pieces, I think it’s safe to say, were made in London.

Cole: You had one center producing furniture that was then just sent out to the provinces, whereas here there isn’t that centralization of manufacture or style?

Keno: Right. One thing that I find fascinating in this country is to see which urban area was important at which time of our colonial history. I spent five years doing a study on chairs, on colonial Boston chairs. Two fellow scholars and I had decided that a whole group of chairs that were thought to have been made in Newport and in New York were actually made in Boston. We were going against twenty or more books that said completely the opposite. But we said to ourselves, “Wait a minute, this is an early misattribution that got repeated and repeated and repeated.” We went back to check the original attribution of these chairs to find out why these were attributed to Newport and New York in the first place.

The short of it is--and I won’t get into it, but I do get excited about it because Boston chairs are a real passion of mine--is that we found that the vast majority of these chairs descended in local families--if the chairs descended in the Van Renssalaer family of New York, the assumption was that they were made in New York. We prowled the shipping records from the 1730s and ‘40s and early ‘50s, during Boston’s heyday, and found that Boston was to chairs during this period what Detroit was to carmaking in the sixties--it ruled. These chairs were shipped out by the thousands all down the coast, like ordering today from an L.L. Bean catalog, and not all were inexpensive. The agent in Boston would load the ship up, the chairmakers owned partial shares in the ships, and these were shipped along with clock cases, desks, chests, and other items, down the coast.

Cole: En masse.

Keno: We went to the office of Public Records in London and went through the cargo records of American colonial ships. Most of the copies here were destroyed. It was unbelievable to open these big dusty books with sealskin covers and look at the colonial records that had been sent back to the king. We found great documentation there.

We documented a shipment of chairs right from the Boston dock to prominent New York merchant William Beekman. We found receipts showing that William Beekman was buying chairs in Boston. His upholstered settee, now in the collections of the State Department, had long been attributed to New York because of its provenance. We now know that it is Boston made.

Cole: Getting back to the larger picture of American history--we talked before about this--there is a really appalling lack of knowledge about our own country, especially among young people. I think one of the wonderful things about the Antiques Roadshow is that you make history come alive. You tell a story by looking at an object and then figuring out where it was made and who might have made it. It seems to me that’s a good way for people, especially young people, to begin to get an understanding of their history. Do you feel that way?

Keno: I agree one hundred percent. A program like the Roadshow is wonderful for educating young people about their past, about American history. We do have many younger people coming up to us appraisers on the show. Parents have said, “Thank God for the Roadshow, because my son would only talk about skateboarding and hip-hop music and now he’s watching the Roadshow every Monday night and he’s collecting antique toys.”

The objects are a catalyst. You have this object. You have people talking about it. It’s the most basic way of communicating. It’s basically storytelling. And that goes back hundreds and hundreds of years. It goes back to people around the fire telling stories and passing those stories down to their children, who pass it down to their children, who pass it down.

If that can get young people excited--even if it includes prices that get people excited--that’s okay. As you said earlier, the nice thing about being a dealer is that it combines the scholarship with the business aspect. If a boy finds that a baseball glove owned by Mickey Mantle that he found for fifty dollars is worth three hundred dollars, that’s a nice byproduct. He can go treasure hunting and at the same time he might learn all about Mickey Mantle and the history of baseball.

Cole: That dynamism, that kind of connection to the object tells history in a way that you can’t find in a museum. It is that sense of discovery. I agree with you that the monetary value in a way confirms this--the rarity, the condition and the like.

Keno: That’s right. The other thing I want to add is that touching helps the sense of discovery. With my four-year-old, I never tell him not to touch something. He picks up almost anything. I probably wouldn’t let him pick up a Tiffany lamp, I guess--but he can pick up any chair he wants, if he can lift it, because I think if you tell people, children, not to touch antiques, they’ll grow up thinking that they shouldn’t touch.

Cole: One of the things I like about the show is that these aren’t sacred objects. People handle them, turn them around. You pull out drawers, tip the thing up--and that’s actually what they were for. People did handle them. They did look at them, use them.

Keno: Right.

Cole: That’s the difference between a painting, let’s say, which also tells a story and sometimes has a purpose, like an altarpiece or something similar.

Keno: Yes.

Cole: But it’s not something that you use. You don’t store stuff in it. It’s not functional. That is another dimension of furniture that is very exciting, the utility of it.

Keno: Absolutely it is. A piece of furniture is basically made up of many, many small parts, like a Lego sculpture really. And they’re all connected.

The back of a chair. When I see it, I see it as a whole, but I also dissect it. I see this desk. It’s a desk, but I see four drawer fronts. I see the back. I can picture inside. It’s like X-ray vision. It’s not just about the surface.

Cole: Do you feel when people bring things to the Roadshow that you’re helping draw their history out of them? They’ve had this object sitting around their house and they’ve never really known anything about it and they come to the Roadshow and they discover, look, it has all this history.

Keno: You have to find it within. A lot of times, people may know things about their family’s history, but they don’t know how it connects. They can say, “Well, yes, my grandmother did come from Ireland a hundred years ago but we always assumed this was made in New York.”
And you tell them that, “Well, this is actually an Irish piece.”

Cole: A show like the Antiques Roadshow or some of the others, I call the public university. They have this wonderful educational value to them. Obviously people are hungry for those kinds of shows on PBS and the History Channel. They’re hungry for a kind of public history, for an exciting story. Take David McCullough and the great success of John Adams and other books of that kind. Don’t you think that’s really part of this whole phenomenon of the Antiques Roadshow?

Keno:What a great book! I think the idea of traveling across the United States on a treasure hunt and finding--and seeing people from all over the United States is part of the fun. A lot of times it’s not about the price, not about the money either. It is about the history and the stories.

Cole: Isn’t the Antiques Roadshow the number one show on PBS now?

Keno: It is. The show is watched by approximately thirteen million people every week.

Cole: Why do you think that is?

Keno: If you think about it, it combines treasure hunting with adventure, with learning, and it does that without any sex or violence. How many shows are there that the whole family can watch where it’s entertaining, and where you’re absorbing American history in a fun way?

Cole: When somebody brings you something that you’ve never seen before, can you just walk us through the steps that you take to identify it, where it came from, what its date is? How do you do that?

Keno: An entomologist probably uses the same techniques. You have this object in front of you and you ask it questions. You have this dialog with it--”Where were you made?” “How old are you?” and “Are you actually real?” You ask it questions, and through the process of holding it, picking it up, smelling it, your mind constantly brings forward the details of related objects. Hopefully, you figure it out eventually.

I always assume a piece is guilty until proven innocent. Let’s say it’s a fourlegged, eighteenth-century tea table. You say, prove it to me, because so many of these are faked. Look at the woods that it’s made of. Does it have secondary woods? Do the secondary woods tell us where it was made? Because although you might have a piece of mahogany, like this Boston block front, the secondary wood is white pine, which is an American wood.

And then you ask if this has certain characteristics, like this blocking. We know that ninety-nine out of one hundred block front pieces were made in Boston or Salem or elsewhere on the North Shore of New England.

You look at the condition to see if the oxidation of the secondary woods is genuine or is it, in fact, faked up with stains to look like oxidized wood?

And then, if you’re able to, you try to find comparable objects in books.

Cole: You’ve got a memory of other pieces, right, to which you compare this? But you look at like things like the proportion of it, the way it all fits together.

Keno: Yes.

Cole: What about the touch and what about smelling it?

Keno: The touch and the smell help, too. I looked at a table the other day in Hot Springs. The man had written to me and said, “You’re going to be in Hot Springs. Can I bring you this table?” He was a very nice man and it was a wonderful little red-painted table that would have been very valuable. He put it in front of me and it was a whole-cloth fake. I felt bad to even tell him. Actually, it had a new paint smell. I don’t think it was more than ten years old.

There are tests that you can do to go further. There’s microscopy, which is the study of the surface. You can have a little sample taken and in a lab they look at the stratigraphy of the layers. Let’s say we do a sample here, here, and here on a chair. All the samples have the same stratigraphic layers except for this one, which has only one layer of finish and a synthetic one at that! Wait a minute. Maybe that passage of the back of the chair is replaced. The other ones have a history of archaeology, of dirt and varnish and wax. There is a world of history in that little
speck. It’s like DNA from a hair.

Cole: That’s very interesting. Let’s talk about fakes for a while. This is always a problem, right? When did people start faking early American furniture?

Keno: I think faking has been going on for thousands of years. Ancient Chinese bronzes were faked over one thousand years ago. I’m not an expert, but for American furniture I think some of the best fakes were made in the twenties, when the market for furniture was going very strong, just before the Depression. There were prices into the $15,000 and $30,000 range, which was an incredible amount of money back then.

Cole: Has early American furniture always been prized?

Keno: There was an interest during our nation’s Centennial in 1876. From that grew this entire industry of Colonial Revival furniture. We see pieces today and they pass occasionally as period pieces, because they sometimes used old wood. But they’re not made as fakes, they are just revival. By 1910, European furniture and paintings were, of course, valued far more than American.

Cole: It’s the same thing with early American painting. Seventeenth- or eighteenth-century and nineteenth-century painting were very undervalued, not considered the equivalent of European painting. But it’s interesting that all of a sudden people wanted to decorate their homes with American furniture instead of Renaissance furniture or reproductions of European rococo furniture.

Keno: In 1924 the American wing opened at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and that was a huge event. Wealthy Americans around the country wanted to create miniature American wings in their own homes. Henry DuPont soon after started collecting and there were a couple of small auctions where pieces brought record prices.

Cole: So the Americans started to appreciate their own material past in that way. Can you tell me something about the dealing in American furniture and when that got started?

Keno: It was really not until the mid-1980s that prices became strong again like they were in the late twenties. It took a long time. The first piece of furniture to bring a million dollars was a tea table at auction in 1986.

Cole: Had European furniture sold for a million already?

Keno: European furniture had already done that, but American furniture hadn’t. Then in 1987, I think it was, my brother Leslie took on consignment at Sotheby’s a hair-paw-foot easy chair once owned by General John Cadwalader, who was a friend of George Washington. All the bills exist from the original order. Leslie put the chair at $600,000 to $900,000 and it ended up selling for $2,500,000, plus premiums, which was $2,750,000.

As I recall, one London newspaper had a headline that read, “Chair riddled with holes sells for $2.7 million.” The front page of Barron’s had a picture of the chair, postage-stamped size, and it said, “Is this chair worth $2.75 million or has the art market gone bonkers?”

Cole: So that’s when American furniture, in terms of price, really started to come into its own.

Keno: It did.

Cole: What’s the existing record?

Keno: The record now is $12.1 million when you add premiums. It was for a secretary bookcase once owned by the merchant Nicholas Brown of Providence. It was sold to help restore the Nicholas Brown house, which needed some work. So they had a beautiful reproduction made.

Cole: Tell us a little bit about the dealers that you’ve known and admired. A man like Albert Sack.

Keno: Albert Sack of Israel Sack, Inc. Yes, he is a great dealer. Albert is a good friend and he just retired from Israel Sack, Inc. Some of the pieces you see in this room were at Sack on consignment just before they closed. He called me and said, “Leigh, we’re going out of business and we have things on consignment. I’m recommending to the owners that they sell through you.” It was very nice of him.

Albert wrote the book Fine Points of American Furniture, also known as Good, Better, Best. He’s a great dealer and honest and knowledgeable. Imiss having him in town, I tell you. He actually loved the scholarship. He loved the hunt.

Cole: What makes a great dealer?

Keno: Honesty is the top thing. That’s Number One. Honesty and a passion for what you do.

When I say “honesty,” I mean honesty with the people you deal with, honesty about the object you are selling. Let’s analyze the piece and have every single bit of that on a piece of paper, with a signed guarantee. That’s key that you not minimize any condition aspect.

We have condition reports--some are half a page long. I remember one client who hadn’t bought from me before said, “Leigh, and you said this piece was in good condition?” The piece actually was in great condition, but we go overboard listing every small repair. If a drawer has a chip or there’s a scratch--these are things that don’t really affect value, but it’s important to list them.

Cole: Is there such a thing as having the instinct for the real thing? Does your heart rate get a little faster when you spot it?

Keno: When I see something great, sure it does. But you have to be prepared for the worst as well. If you have a hunch something is a fake, it’s important to be able to list the reasons and say why.

Sometimes it adds up to something being real but so compromised by replacements that it’s not worth much. Sometimes it adds up to a whole-cloth fake that was made to deceive.

The fascinating thing about this field is that all kinds of things affect value. You can have a million-dollar table that’s absolutely right. If one foot is replaced, that table might be worth $150,000.

In our book we write about a tea table that was on loan at Yale. It was valued at $250,000 by a couple of appraisers who thought the top was replaced. I looked at the top and found that it was original. The red stain that they thought was suspicious was, in fact, the original red stain put on by the cabinetmaker, not something put on later to have the top match the sides. Later, we sold it on behalf of the owners for $3,650,000. It didn’t even need forensic work. The top had its original chalk marks and tool marks that matched the marks on the side of the skirt. But when you have stakes that high, you have to really be careful.

Cole: It seems to me that you really like what you’re doing. Obviously that enthusiasm is infectious. What’s the best part of your job?

Keno: I do love it. It’s the people and the sense of adventure. It’s meeting the people. I always think of Joseph Campbell, who said “Follow your bliss.”

Cole: So it’s meeting people, meeting great objects, and placing them, too. That must be very exciting.

Keno: One of the great thrills for me as a private dealer is building great collections. We’ve had the privilege of helping to build some of the best collections in the world of American furniture and decorative arts. One of my clients had many things on loan at the White House and the State Department. I was asked to do some appraisals at both places. That was exciting for me.

Cole: The State Department has a remarkable collection. Just incidentally, do we know of pieces that were associated with the Founders?

Keno: Jefferson, of course, was a real Francophile. He ordered chairs from France and a Louis XVI secretary abbatant. With other presidents it’s difficult. There isn’t much documentation of specific items they owned.

Cole: Given the high quality of most of the things that were made, we can be pretty sure that they had good objects, right?

Keno: Oh, yes. There’s this great quote about General John Cadwalader, whom Washington apparently had visited. Somebody wrote a letter and said that “We dined with General Cadwalader, whose house and furniture exceeds anything we’ve seen on this continent or other continents.”

Cole: That’s quite a statement.

Keno: It’s interesting to me to try to go into the mind of someone who is ordering a houseful of incredible furniture and willing to spend the money with the cities’ best craftsmen. With somebody like General Cadwalader, you have all these receipts, you can see this house created. You can picture the troops out on the lawn and drinking kegs of Madeira just before going out to practice in the summer heat. It’s another world.

Cole: We’ve been talking about early American furniture and its originality and distinctness. Certainly it has proved to be a success story, as has, I think, American art. What about furniture after 1850? Do you see classics?

Keno: Well, my specialty is furniture up until the 1840s. On the Roadshow the majority of things that we see are made between 1860 and 1950. By the end of the nineteenth century manufacturers had developed ways to produce furniture inexpensively, so we see a lot of oak chairs with machine-pressed designs in the back. Handcarving was expensive.

Cole: The world of antiques includes both things that are valuable because they are beautiful and things that are valuable because they are evidence of something. The best part is when they go together: It’s beautiful and it’s rare.

Keno: Yes, I agree. You can use many factors to evaluate a piece. The quality--what kind of materials are used, how is it put together? Rarity--are there thousands of similar examples or is this the only one? And if there’s only one, is it perhaps suspect? Is it something somebody came up with that didn’t really exist in the eighteenth century? Condition is the third thing. Is it refinished? Does it have the original surface? Are any parts replaced? Fourth is the provenance or the history of where it’s been since it was made. Provenance is the icing on the cake. The first three are most important.

Cole: Are you convinced that American furniture-making has stayed healthy enough through the present day that there are going to be classics similar to the classics you are used to appraising?

Keno: That’s a good question. Many of those things made in the late nineteenth century, the Renaissance Revival objects, for instance, were made in abundance, so I don’t think of those in terms of being highly collectible at high prices.

I do think that some of the great Stickley pieces and the Green & Green pieces--those Arts and Crafts era furniture--are quite incredible.

I know what it’s like to have something have sentimental value--my grandma, who’s been gone for many years, left me some things. To anybody else they’re not valuable at all, but if anybody told me this is worthless, I’d say, “I beg your pardon. This means a lot to me.”

Cole: Let me ask then, what kind of furniture do you have in your own house?

Keno: In my own place? Well, you saw where I’m going to live, over the shop? I have a bed without a headboard and my four-year-old’s art work is on the wall.

I always joke that I’m like the shoemaker whose children have no shoes. I have a few pieces I’ve put away, but not many. I think it’s a conflict for a dealer to collect great examples from the field that they deal in. It’s a conflict because it means that your clients are going to get the second-level things. So the best things have always gone to my clients.

I had a pair of Chinese arm chairs, but I made the mistake of mentioning them to a client. He was asking me if I knew of any good Ming dynasty furniture and I said, in passing, “Well, I have a pair of chairs in my living room, but I’m keeping them.” And he looked at me and he said, “Leigh . . .” And, of course, the next day they were gone.

Cole: You don’t have a couple of La-Z-Boys up there?

Keno: I don’t have La-Z-Boys, but I’m just going to have a leather couch and some Queen Anne--things I can live with. I’ve never had curtains or anything like that. It’s a funny thing. I love the objects, but I don’t think of them in a setting. I don’t think of “decorating.”

Cole: The good thing about furniture is that they are works of art that you get to use, sit on, and store things in, and they become part of your daily life.

Keno: That’s right. And the dings and the scratches are just adding to its history. The surface of a piece records the conversations of life around it.

We’re always saying on the Roadshow, “Don’t refinish this.” When you highly refinish something, you erase the tape basically. You erase that history. You erase that conversation it’s had with its environment.

Cole: I love the idea that the piece recapitulates its history and owners and use. That’s a great note to end on. Thank you so much.


An Afterword with Leslie Keno

The other Keno twin, Leslie, missed the conversation. He was called away to New York University Hospital, where his wife Emily was giving birth to their second child. We talked to him later by telephone and asked what American furniture can tell us about American history:

Leslie Keno: I think of these objects as props on the stage of life. They are beautiful, aesthetically pleasing, tangible documents. They are pretty dramatic evidence of several things.

They tell us about the skill of the early craftsman. They tell us not just about the makers but who they were made for--the patrons who ordered the pieces.

They tell us about the socioeconomic history of the past. We’ve heard it said before: If only these pieces could talk. It’s important to remember that these pieces were made and used when one of the great democracies was being formed.

The pieces that have survived document a range of different levels of society, and certainly levels of wealth. You can have two tilt-top tea tables next to each other. One could have been ordered by General John Cadwalader in 1770, 1772, when he furnished his Second Street home in Philadelphia. He was one of the wealthiest people in colonial America. Then you could have one made the same day in a rural area of Pennsylvania or New England or anywhere along the eastern seaboard. It might be of cherrywood instead of imported expensive mahogany, maybe not with a piecrust edge, but plain. It doesn’t have the elaborate carving; it has a certain simplicity and restraint to it. That doesn’t make it any less worthwhile a piece or any less important--just two different approaches joined by the common function of the object.