Kenos Play Hard!

Posted by Lamar
Sep 02 2015

Dramatic moments on PBS’ “Antiques Roadshow” are not uncommon. This one, however, stands out because it involves the inimitable Keno twins (suffice to say, the incident was re-shown on “Oprah”). A no-nonsense older lady has brought along her antique Federal card table of luxuriant chestnut hue to the row. The brothers beam at her. She bought it more than thirty years ago for $25 at a garage sale. There is a lesson here. The twins gasp, beam harder, jittery with restraining themselves. Aged 42, identically blond, dressed in impeccable Savile Row suits, they might be scarcely 14, so clear is the filament of enthusiasm shining through. Leslie Keno hoists off the half-moon tabletop and points to the crumbling label beneath. Maker: John Seymour, the renowned British craftsman who immigrated to Boston in 1789. Now, his twin, Leigh, kneels down in impassioned wide-eyed homage to the table. This is a style of performance unique to the Kenos, a kind of celebration, and once seen, it’s never forgotten. “You get the feeling of Aladdin with the treasure,” says Aida Moreno, executive producer of “Roadshow.” “They’re full of boundless curiosity, discovery and erudition.” Leigh points, caresses and intones: figured mahogany top with lozenge-and-dot sand-burnt inlay, tapering bellflowers on the veneer front, topped by a bowknot so delicately done, tapering legs, spade feet.

kenoInfused with the Keno intensity, the nomenclature becomes a kind of poetry and the object takes on high romance. You may not like the object, but you end up loving it. “When we first saw [the table], my heart went thump, thump, thump,” says Leigh Keno to the table’s owner. “Feel it, you can feel it right now,” he says and yanks the woman’s hand to his chest. “It was one of the most exciting moments of our lives.” By the time he tells her the table might fetch up to $300,000 (it subsequently went for more than $500,000 at auction) the scene is complete–perfect television. In the process, we have seen the Kenos’ great strength: an unerring knowledge of the material and an uncanny ability to bring out the inner life of the object.

The Kenos are the superstars of the antique American furniture trade–that the accolade sounds so odd tells you how rare is their achievement. Sure, they are at the top of their profession: Leslie Keno is senior vice-president and director of American furniture and decorative arts at Sotheby’s, and Leigh runs the top-drawer Leigh Keno American Antiques on Manhattan’s Madison Avenue. (Leigh is also cochairman of the vetting committee at this month’s prestigious Winter Antiques Show, where he has a prominent booth.) Still, they have become household names in a field that scarcely bestows popular recognition, let alone stardom. So much so that Warner Books recently acquired Hidden Treasures, their upcoming memoir of antiquing adventures (coauthored with Joan Barzilay Freund), for a seven-figure sum.

“They have definitely brought glamour and attention to our field, and we all benefit from the reflected glory,” says Dean Failey, senior director of American collections at Christie’s and the former boss of Leigh Keno. “They’ve achieved unprecedented recognition. Of course, being twins doubles everything instantly. These days, we all wake up wishing we could clone ourselves.”

Others, however, wonder if such closeness doesn’t have its liabilities, and point to potential conflicts of loyalty. After all, the Kenos have to compete for clients and objects. How, for instance, do they keep secrets from each other? The twins resolved the matter emphatically between themselves a long time ago. “When you’re that close to somebody,” they say, phrases tumbling out of each of them interchangeably, “you know exactly what not to ask him. You learn to separate. You have to do it all the time. Or else it becomes impossible.” An obvious example: they lead separate private lives. Leslie is married to Emily, a former Sotheby’s colleague who hails from an old Louisiana plantation family, and they have a daughter, Ashley. Leigh is still single but has a two-year-old son, Brandon, who can occasionally be spotted playing among the table legs at his father’s gallery.

Still, much of the time, the Kenos seem to be in eerie sync–to the extent that one can irritate the other by completing the other’s thoughts. Most of the time, though, their pitch-perfect, tag-team blend of affability and flashing humor comes across as charm. “We get lots of letters, especially from kids saying that they always watch the show and love to collect. It’s a responsibility, because we’re ambassadors or educators in a way,” says Leslie Keno soberly–along with, he’s quick to add, “all our colleagues on the `Roadshow.’” Leslie is perhaps the more circumspect of the two, though they are exuberant, athletic and outgoing in equal measure. Says brother Leigh precisely on cue, “And we get recognized in the remotest places–like the general store near Klamath Falls, Oregon, where we went fishing. I was even recognized by a cop at a toll plaza recently. It took him awhile. At first, I thought he was going to arrest me”

The Kenos like to downplay their celebrity, and perhaps they are wise to do so. It’s probably no accident that their core profession, unlike the field of contemporary art, for example, has not fostered heroes. Rather, the more tradition-bound world of antique American furniture puts a premium on self-effacement underpinned by scholarship, expertise, discretion and the trust of clients. Yet it’s not easy for the Kenos to hide their glamour. They fly-fish all over the world; they collect outstanding objects, from furniture to Old Masters to vintage cars; on pretzellike racetracks they compete in gorgeous 1950s racecars at speeds of up to 120 mph. (Leigh’s is a 1959 Lola Mk I; Leslie’s is a 1958 Lotus Eleven.) They can be as eloquent on the latter subject as on any Cadwalader table. “Our cars date from the last years of truly aesthetic design in racing–before corporate money and high-tech took over. They were still designing from the imagination, so the cars are like beautiful sculptures. You just love to be in them.”

Like their charm, the Kenos’ connoisseurship seems so ingenuous and unfettered that it suggests youthful beginnings. And in fact, the twins began studying, collecting and dealing early in their preteens. Their parents, Ron and Norma, who still live in Mohawk, New York, where the twins grew up, dealt in Americana and encouraged them to do the same. Ron Keno taught art at the high school and taught the twins how to look deeply at objects. He also collected and restored antique cars. Says Norma Keno: “We often took the boys out of school to go to antiques shows. We’d tell the principal straight out. He wasn’t happy about it, but by their teens the twins knew all about Nantucket baskets and early stoneware, had absorbed a great deal of history and learned how to take care of themselves. The Munson-Williams-Proctor Museum of Art near here was already exhibiting their stoneware collection when they were kids. They sold it before going to college” Indeed, the proceeds paid a substantial sum of the Kenos’ college tuition.

The twins regard their parents with great pride. But they were also very independent as children. They remember searching high and low for collectibles. “We would look for wrought-iron door handles and barn hinges and the like in old ruins. We soon noticed that, for some reason, lilac bushes still grow where the doorways used to be. So we knew where to look.” The twins kept meticulous notebooks with precise drawings of all their varied objects. They, and their possessions, separated for the first time when they went to different colleges in the late ’70s–Leigh to Hamilton College in Clinton, New York, and Leslie to Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts–though, upon graduation in 1979, they moved back in together in New York City.

Within weeks of arriving in town, the Kenos launched their careers in auction houses, Leslie at Sotheby’s and Leigh at the William Doyle Galleries. “In college, we made up our minds that it would be American furniture. We catalogued the furniture collections of our respective colleges and organized the exhibitions. We had so much fun that by the time we came to town we knew.”

Each attained daunting levels of success and responsibility at an astonishingly young age. Leslie was made director of Sotheby’s American furniture department at the age of 26, in the early ’80s. Tom Lloyd, his immediate boss at the time (now an architect), remembers that Leslie “had extreme passion–it was in his blood. You can’t fake that, and it won over everybody.” Simultaneously, Leigh worked his way from Doyle’s to Christie’s (for two years) to opening his own gallery by 1986. “So many times” says Leigh, “we were on the phone to each other at 3 A.M., the only two people still working at Sotheby’s and Christie’s.”

Less surprising than their swift, irresistible rise, perhaps, is that the Kenos’ brand of high-energy enthusiasm, which would seem ill-suited to the mandarin environment of their particular field, consistently won them converts and scored coups. For some years, Leslie Keno’s role at Sotheby’s has involved, among other things, traveling the country in an endless round of diplomacy, often visiting the homes of highly private, old-money families with distinguished furniture, arguing the virtues of selling through Sotheby’s when the time comes. Leigh treads similar terrain as a private dealer. Unrestrained youthful ardor could easily have derailed the Kenos’ upward trajectory early on. Yet to the contrary, according to insiders, the Kenos’ simultaneous presence may have saved the market during critical periods of transition through the ’80s and early ’90s. Says H. Richard Dietrich Jr., one of the country’s foremost collectors of (among other things) Colonial American furniture, and whose own Dietrich American Foundation lends pieces to the Philadelphia Museum and the Department of State: “The Kenos appeared just when a whole older generation of dealers, whom we all depended on, began to fade in the mid ’80s, and just when there was a dizzying upsurge in auction prices. Many of us were turned off, but the Kenos were a stabilizing force. They were trustworthy and dependable and easy to get to know. Auction houses had no tradition of advising and cultivating individual clients–at least not in our field. The Kenos gave that to the auction culture.” Leslie’s superior, William W. Stahl Jr., Sotheby’s executive vice-president, claims that the auction house has dominated the market share in American furniture chiefly because of Leslie.

Certainly, since their appearance, the Kenos have never been far from many of the headline-making sales of American pieces. In Leigh’s early years on his own, he bought pieces for Dietrich’s foundation collection and for Dietrich’s personal collection, an immense responsibility for one in his 20s. His purchases included, in 1987, the record-breaking ($2.75 million) Cadwalader Chippendale carved-mahogany easy chair–which Leslie had uncovered. In 1994 at Sotheby’s, Leslie hosted the grand sale that featured William du Pont’s Philadelphia Chippendale furniture. Based in Delaware, a trustee of the Winterthur Museum, Garden & Library for more than twenty years, and possibly the country’s leading collector of William and Mary and Queen Anne American furniture, du Pont remembers Leigh’s contribution too: “I had a very unusual balloon-seat side chair from the collection that I knew wouldn’t do well at auction. It was beautiful but eccentric. Leigh found just the right private buyer for it”

Another of Leigh’s memorable coups came out of a New England family of three siblings in the early fall of 1997. They had lent an inherited table to the Yale University Art Gallery. “It was a Captain Brintnall Chippendale mahogany tray-top tea table;” says Leigh, “made by John Godard in Newport circa 1765–with the most beautiful open-ball and open-talon feet. The family was about to give it away, probably to Yale, at the appraised value of $200,000, because its top was said to be a later replacement.” Leigh, who was called in by a mutual friend, disagreed. He remembers phoning one of the owners with his reappraisal: “I told him the conservative estimate would be $3.5 million. There was an intense silence, and I thought I could hear gulping. Maybe it was me. I was just acting as appraiser. I said nothing about taking it on. He asked to call me back. When he did, his voice was almost a whisper, and he asked if I could find it a home at that price. I said absolutely.” In January 1998, it was the centerpiece of his Winter Antiques Show booth and sold on the first day for $3.65 million.

Leslie for his part pulled off a momentous coup for Sotheby’s at the beginning of last year. He effected a sale, in the January 1999 auction, at the highest price ever paid for any single piece of furniture in Sotheby’s history. It was the Nathaniel Appleton Queen Anne carved-mahogany secretary bookcase, and it cost the anonymous buyer $8.25 million. “The French owners wanted an appraisal. I’d seen photos and I knew it was good. I went to Paris, and it was just tremendous, the Mona Lisa of furniture. All the mounts were silver, stamped with the silversmith’s name, the great Samuel Casey. The whole piece was made of plum pudding mahogany, the rarest and finest, including the parts usually made of secondary woods, like the inner sides of shelves and the bottom. This was built as a masterpiece in the 1740s, no expense spared, and owned by the Reverend Nathaniel Appleton of Cambridge, Massachusetts [whose portrait hangs at Harvard University]. The French owners were his direct descendants, so the piece had a clear family history too.”

Still, says Leslie, he had little time in Paris and couldn’t see the piece fully. “It had one great flaw: the proportions seemed wrong–it looked too short.” When it finally arrived at Sotheby’s in New York, only days before the sale (French tax laws had delayed its arrival), they took a thorough look. Infrared photography showed the signature of Christopher Townsend, a patriarch of the famed Newport cabinetmaking family. They also found brackets that had held detachable feet. “The feet had fallen off down the years,” says Leslie, “so we quickly had replacements made, just for display purposes. And suddenly the piece looked perfect–the height, the ball feet that completed the domes and curves of the whole. Harold Sack [the veteran American furniture dealer] sat and stared at it for an hour. It was the greatest piece he or I had ever seen.”

In the meantime, Leigh has etched the Keno name into the history of his field, coauthoring (with Alan Miller and Joan Barzilay Freund) a series of groundbreaking articles in the scholarly magazine. American Furniture. The articles showed that a highly important style of Queen Anne chair hitherto attributed to New York and Newport, Rhode Island, and noted as such in top collections, including the Metropolitan Museum’s, had in fact been made in Boston. According to Brock Jobe, a deputy director at the Winterthur, “Leigh’s work unlocked one of the most important mysteries of 18th-century American furniture. The finest `case furniture’–cabinets and tables–came out of Boston at that time. Leigh simply asked the question that no one else had: Why didn’t the chairs come from Boston, too?”