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Made In The USA—Mining Americana

Judd Tully
From the Print Edition:
Dennis Hopper, Jan/Feb 01

Leslie B. Keno, Sotheby's senior specialist and director of business development for American furniture and decorative arts, is rarely at a loss for words. But caught between hearty sips of takeout soup from the auction house's rooftop café one fall afternoon, the dapper regular on PBS's "Antiques Road Show" gnawed on a question about his ardor for Americana.

Americana is a handy term that covers just about every imaginable collectible one might find in an American home (or barn) from, say, 1660 (the so-called Pilgrim era) to 1845 (the so-called Empire period). Webster's dictionary defines the term even more broadly: "Materials concerning or characteristic of America, its civilization or its culture." In any event, Americana is a gigantic umbrella category used by auction houses and antiques dealers to describe American furniture, folk art, portrait miniatures, textiles, pottery, silver, pewter and glass. It's also a red-hot collecting area for both seasoned connoisseurs and budding enthusiasts who desire an authentic piece of made-in-America history. (The category also includes imported items specifically designed and made for the U.S. market.)

"I love objects, so whether it's a high boy [a tall chest of drawers] or a piece of early American stoneware, I get equally excited about it," says Keno. "That's the nice thing here at Sotheby's. We have the whole gamut, all the way from Pilgrim, William & Mary, Queen Anne, Chippendale, Federal and Classic."

The flurry of terms denoting specific historic periods can easily confuse the novice, but a brief consultation with an encyclopedia or informed friend can largely remedy that. Keno promotes continuing education in the field as a lifelong pursuit, and listening to him during an impromptu interview, perched on a hallway bench at Sotheby's swank York Avenue headquarters in Manhattan, underscores that impression.

Antiques are in Keno's blood; his mother ran an antiques shop in their home in upstate New York. He began collecting and cataloguing objects (mostly eighteenth- and nineteenth-century wrought-iron hinges and stoneware) as a child with his identical twin brother, Leigh, now a prominent New York dealer in American furniture. Recalling an episode from childhood when the boys found a nineteenth-century colored glass marble near a horse trough on the family's property, Leslie Keno says, "We convinced ourselves it was left by a man from Mars." (The Keno brothers recently published a memoir, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture, with chapters alternately authored by Leigh and Leslie. The book is rumored to have brought a hefty million-dollar advance.)

Keno says the great thing about Americana, and particularly American furniture, is that "unlike any other furniture field from other countries, we can pinpoint exactly where something was made, sometimes within a five-mile radius." So instead of descriptions like "eighteenth-century English furniture" or "urban versus provincial," Keno says, in America "we're able to say, 'Hartford, Connecticut, circa 1780.' When people emigrated here, you had different religious groups settle within close communities, and different styles developed based on where they were from in England or Europe. Distinctive construction techniques [for furniture and decorative arts] were passed on in regions, and even the use of secondary woods [such as pine, poplar or cherry] was treated differently in each period. To me, that's what makes our field really fascinating."

The values on these seemingly subtle distinctions can be mind-boggling. In January 1999, for example, one of Keno's career-topping discoveries, a silver-mounted mahogany secretary and bookcase in the Queen Anne style, fetched a staggering $8.25 million at Sotheby's. Signed by famed cabinetmaker Christopher Townsend of Newport, Rhode Island, and owned by the French descendants of the original owner, Nathaniel Appleton, the secretary drew the highest price ever paid for any piece of furniture sold at the firm.

The piece had been estimated at $500,000 to $800,000, but subsequent research by Keno and his colleagues before the sale revealed that it was not only signed by the famed patriarch of the cabinetmaking dynasty, but that the solid-silver hinges and hardware were made and signed by Samuel Casey, second in importance among Colonial silversmiths only to Paul Revere. "It was like finding the Holy Grail," recalls Keno. The dome-top secretary had languished for years in a small Paris apartment until the family decided to sell it.

When asked what draws such a passionate breed of collectors to Americana, the Savile Row-tailored expert -- who fly-fishes and vintage-races a 1979 Ferrari 512 BB/LM Silhouette with his brother in his spare time -- had a lot to say. "Certainly, I think there's a certain element of pride," Keno says. "We don't have to look over our shoulders to England or Europe for masterpieces or for great craftsmanship, beautiful design and proportion -- it is right here on our shores." Pausing a moment, he adds, "I also think there are certain collectors who love the detective work that you need to do to really collect, especially if you're collecting for several regions. What makes something made in Boston different from something made in Newport on the same day?"

Though expansive and sharply focused during the interview, Keno was in an overtime mode, juggling details on last-minute consignments for Sotheby's major Americana sales on January 19 and 20 as well as overseeing the installation of objects for an earlier sale. He was especially excited about the January 19 single-owner sale of American furniture and folk paintings from the storied collection of Andrew Wolfe, who, like Keno, caught the collecting bug as a child going on antique hunts with his grandmother. Wolfe's widow owns the landmark Richardson's Canal House Inn at Bushnell's Basin, New York, where many of the pieces had been displayed over the years.

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