It’s no wonder that the Keno twins, who put the fun back into antiquing, can’t pass a bull’s-eye mirror without checking it out. The round, bubble-like glass throws a curve and casts them in a fun-house light. "It’s kind of wild–psychedelic," says Leslie, who laughs as he cringes at his own distorted reflection. Clearly, he can’t resist the combination punch—a surreal image framed in Regency gilt.
The landed gentry, however, were thinking less about fun and games and more about keeping an eye on the guests (and maybe the family silver). Like a wide-angle, fish-eye camera lens, the outward-bending glass allowed a butler to see an entire room—and which glasses needed refilling—while staying discreetly out of sight. It was the ultimate domestic surveillance system.
Photographs by Brian McCay
Text by Doris Athineos
Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno
Even English cabinetmaker Thomas Sheraton endorsed the "agreeable effect" that convex mirrors had "on the perspective of the room in which they were suspended." The form first appeared on palace walls in Northern Europe during the Renaissance.
The classical convex mirror, popular on both sides of the Atlantic in the 19th century when it became more affordable, currently poses a real buy opportunity for collectors. Today, prices begin at about $1,000, depending on age, condition, and decorative elements. "It’s a lot of bling for the buck," says Leigh, pointing out that the best bulbous mirrors include branched candleholders, which substantially increase value (as well as change the name to "girandole"). "Armless, the mirrors are worth a lot less," he says.
The mirror shown here is an English import. "Convex glass wasn’t made in America in the early 19th century," notes Leigh. "England shipped the glass to America."
Tissue-thin sheets of gold were applied to wooden frames. The contrast of polished, burnished leaves against flat, matte leaves shows the quality of the mirror, says Leigh.
Look for original glass. Antique glass is fairly thin, so thick glass without "exfoliation" is suspicious. "Place a quarter sideways against the glass," counsels Leslie. "The thinner the glass, the closer the quarter appears to the mirror."
And beware of a crystal-clear reflection. "Antique glass was often resilvered several times in its lifetime, and minor mottling gives glass a softer look," opines Leigh. For collectors hoping for a return on their investment, "original glass is key," he says. Check around the mirror’s edge, where slightly jagged glass held in place by a reeded ebony liner (or behind the backboard) can sometimes be seen.
Gesso, applied to frames, was essential to the gilding process. Old layers are visible from the back.
Does it measure up? To authenticate a mirror, Leigh carefully checks for an original ebony liner and slightly jagged edges of the mirror plate that can peek out from under the liner or show behind the backboard.
Other keys to authenticity are visible only from the back, including original nail holes and layers of old gesso.
Style-maven Martha Stewart landed a classic American giltwood mirror, which she spotted in Leigh Keno’s booth at the Winter Antiques Show in 2002. Its star status is evident in the branched, spiraling candle arms (double-sets!), the turn of its carved cornucopias, and a wide-winged eagle clenching a pair of chained acorns. Note that acorns, not balls, circle the glass. Flat glass, one of the mirror’s telling details, points to its American roots. The wood is another indication of its origin. "It’s entirely white pine, which isn’t the case with English frames," says Leigh, who dates the gilded beauty to 1815. Important American girandoles (mirrors wth branched candleholders) can bring up to six figures.
Photograph courtesy of Leigh Keno American Antiques