It's not every day you meet an 18th and 19th Century ceramics expert. I'll be honest: It's not a profession I knew existed before having met Carleigh Queenth. Turns out, however, it's a role she's been preparing for all her life.
"My grandmother collected ceramics and she got me interested in them. My grandma was sort of a hoarder in a sense. She bought lots of things thinking they would make money someday—Beanie Babies, collector's glasses from McDonalds, etcetera. Her ceramics were legitimately much nicer than that. She had Newcomb pottery and McCoy pottery. She would go to tag sales or antique stores and find things that she thought would be worth more someday. She and my grandfather had tons of these types of things in their house. She was a social worker. She also worked for the Health Department at one point. When we would go to restaurants, she liked to threaten waiters and waitresses that she was still with the Health Department, even though she wasn't.
"It was a quality-time thing that we did together. We would look up the marks in the marks book and then she had a Kovel's, which is a pricing guide for collectibles, and we would price them. I became interested in it through her. My mother also made ceramics so between the two of them, I had a strong inclination towards them. We did that until I went to college, basically. And it wasn't all the time and it wasn't every time but it was a fun thing that we did together that I enjoyed."
So, what actually goes into this unique profession? She answers with a smile, "My job is basically to be 'Antiques Roadshow' all day long and more in-depth. After the catalog comes out and is posted online, we start receiving inquiries from potential buyers and I answer their questions. I reach out to people that I think could be potential buyers that may not have necessarily seen it. I help set up what we call 'the view,' which is the exhibition of the items in the sale, which requires trying to make everything look artfully arranged in a very short turnaround time—you usually have a day or two to set everything up. I also work at the view; I'm there to answer questions for potential purchasers or just people who are interested. On the day of the sale, I'm usually on the telephone, bidding on clients' behalf."
She's also occasionally called upon to work with celebrities and their collections. Naturally, I was curious. "Who," I prodded, "is the last famous person with whom you've worked?" She politely declined to name the individual, citing Christie's respect for its clients' anonymity. I tried another approach: "No, really. Who?" Still, she deftly evaded answering. As a result, despite having no basis for speculation, this interviewer is left no recourse but to believe that it's Prince.
Interestingly, she explains, for an industry so steeped in history, the experience is more dynamic than you'd expect. "I'm learning new things all the time. When you're engaging with these different objects, each object has a different history and engages with a different part of the past. You'll be cataloguing something and learn about a historical figure you didn't know about who is either depicted on the object or owned it. Or you'll find that it was made in commemoration of a event that you had very little knowledge about and in order to properly understand it and price it, you have to learn that history and get a lot closer. So I'm constantly learning new things. It's definitely one of my favorite parts of the job."
Here's what she brought to show us:
THE STANDBY – STICKPINS
I usually buy a large box of these. I've actually only run out once and it was very difficult to find another box of the right length. I had a lot of interns buying and returning a lot of pins because they didn't understand what I needed or why I needed them to be a certain way.
I use them to feel for restoration on porcelain. Most collectors care about any underlying issues, visible or not, with the structural integrity of the piece. Traditionally, a lot of people used to use their teeth—sort of how people can tell real pearls from fake pearls. I can use that method and sometimes still do if I don't have a pin. It feels like enamel on enamel when the object is unrestored. When it's restored, it feels soft. It's the same with the pin: It feels soft or somewhat sticky if it's been restored. And I don't have to worry about accidentally eating lead paint all the time.
THE SPECIALIST – SHORTWAVE/LONGWAVE COMBO BLACKLIGHT
The longwave blacklight shows a lot of old restorations and old overpaint. Often it will make small hairline cracks that might be hard to see more visible. With a lot of new restorations, they often use a clear spray that doesn't glow under the blacklight, which is why the pins often are more helpful.
The shortwave can be very helpful in other ways. It can show soft-paste versus hard-paste porcelain, which in the case of the Sèvres factory is showing earlier versus later. You can use the shortwave to show Samson, which was a European manufacturer that imitated most European factories as well as Chinese works of art in the 19th Century. It usually glows a distinctive color, versus the normal dark purple, which is what hard-paste porcelain glows. If I'm having trouble figuring something out, I go to the blacklight as a way to help me solve the problem. It's definitely good to blacklight objects as much as possible, but if you're processing a large quantity of lots, sometimes it's just not feasible. So, I use it for the tricky questions.
THE SENTIMENTAL FAVORITE – TAPE MEASURE
It's a bright pink that's become progressively less bright pink over the years. I bought it for myself as a present when I first became a Specialist, so about nine years ago. As I'm sure my colleagues could tell you, holding on to a tape measure for that long is a pretty impressive feat in itself. People are constantly losing them or breaking them. It's so easy to leave places, but I've managed to keep track of it for all these years.
Junior Specialists have borrowed it and stretched out the tape and squeezed it to retract it over and over while I slowly go insane thinking they're going to break my precious tape measure, but it's withstood the trials of their youth. It's managed to come back to me every time I've thought I've lost it. I basically travel and go on every visit with it. Every single thing that goes in the catalog gets measured. Every single thing that I list when I go on a visit, whether it's for an estate tax appraisal, a selection for sale, an insurance appraisal—it's getting measured, and I'm using that.
Follow Carleigh and her work: Instagram