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Keno Eye: Antique Tea Caddies

Written by Doris Athineos

Antiques experts Leigh and Leslie Keno both prefer black tea (no milk), but don’t expect to find loose leaves stashed in the brothers’ antique tea caddies. Nor do the Antiques Roadshow duo display their treasure chests behind locked glass doors. Leslie and wife Emily keep a 19th-century burl walnut caddy within reach on a night table next to the bed. It’s stuffed with family memorabilia--decades-old letters from Mom and a long-expired passport with far-flung destination stamps. "I keep silver cuff links in a black lacquered and japanned sarcophagus-shaped caddy," notes Leslie.

"Caddies are a great way to conceal clutter--loose change,  keys, cell phones, or a Blackberry," chimes in brother Leigh, who admires how the boxes were made some 200 years ago. "The same techniques applied to furnituremaking."

Tea caddy courtesy of Sallea Antiques
Photo: Doug Todd

An eight-sided English tortoiseshell caddy, about 1820, sits on bone ball feet. Highly prized, exotic veneers command premium prices.

Wood caddies were carved, inlaid, veneered, and japanned. In fact, some of the greatest English cabinetmakers tried their hand at box design, always remembering to lock behind them. Back then, tea was a pricey commodity so precious that, like jewelry, it was subject to theft and kept under lock and key.  "I have never seen a period tea caddy without a lock," says Thomas Woodham-Smith, director of Mallett Inc., specialists in 18th- and 19th-century English and Continental furnishings.

Tea caddy courtesy of Sallea Antiques
Photo: Doug Todd

In 1762, cabinetmaker Thomas Chippendale himself offered up six polished "tea chests" and, a couple of decades later, George Hepplewhite gave shape to boxes with cleaner, more classical lines. Today, Chippendale mahogany chests can fetch several thousand dollars at auction. "It depends on workmanship and condition, both inside and out," says Leslie, who, for his own use, doesn’t mind when the innards (cut-glass canisters, compartments, or sugar nips) are missing.

This satinwood caddy with a domed lid has two inlays in the shape of seashells.

Tea caddy courtesy of Sallea Antiques
Photo: Doug Todd

This rare late-18th-century fruitwood tea caddy has a ripe patina. "The first thing to go is the stem," says Leigh. Stemless fruit-shaped caddies aren’t as valuable.

Tea caddy courtesy of Sallea Antiques
Photo: Doug Todd

A hexagonal tea caddy is embellished with green and gilded rolled paper, also called paper filigree.

The Kenos prefer chic shagreen (sharkskin) or rolled-paper boxes such as the one shown here, but as lone stunners rather than part of a knickknack display. A single head-turner that doubles as storage space feels spare but stylish. Rest an antique walnut caddy with period patina on a mod glass-and-steel coffee table to warm up a minimalist space, suggest the brothers. "Antiques add a feeling of permanence in a fast-changing world," says Leslie.

Photo: Doug Todd

An English caddy holds Keno keepsakes.

Tea chests came to be called caddies from the Malay word kati, a measure of weight for tea--approximately 1.3 pounds. Boxes were designed with this amount in mind, and foil-lined, lidded compartments provided room for both black and green teas and sometimes included an extra compartment for sugar.

A dazzling, decorative box is affordable if "original condition" isn’t your cup of tea and you don’t mind replaced handles or a lost key. The price should reflect repairs, and all reconditioning should be recorded on the sales receipt.

Ivory caddy courtesy of Christie’s London

Auctions. Find tea caddies in furniture sales at auction houses. For instance, the late-18th-century carved ivory caddy shown above sold for $5,775 at Christie’s London. It was complete with a red-lined interior and glass fittings. 
Sallea Antiques. Speak to owner Sally Kaltman (203/972-1050;
Mallett Inc. Check out these specialists in English and Continental furniture with showrooms in London and New York (212/249-8783;

Leigh (left) found a letter from the twins’ mother, the late Norma Keno, inside Leslie’s 19th-century walnut caddy.

The Victoria and Albert Museum in London has the world’s most extensive caddy collection, some donated by Queen Mary, consort of George V. Among the treasures is a caddy--reputedly made from a mulberry tree that grew in Shakespeare’s garden--featuring a carved bust of Shakespeare plus relief carvings of fruits and flowers. It’s signed by George Cooper and dated 1791.

Good Reading: Try Stones’ Pocket Guide to Tea Caddies by Noël Riley (2002) and Antique Boxes, Tea Caddies, & Society: 1700–1880 by Antigone Clarke and Joseph O’Kelly (Schiffer Publishing).

Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno
Photography: Doug Todd