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EYE ON DESIGN: Leigh Keno
By Andrew Myers
Best in Show
Leigh Keno is a dog. Specifically a Border Collie. This is no canard; it’s a character corollary along the lines of Isaiah Berlin’s 1953 essay “The Hedgehog and the Fox,” which separated authors into foxes or hedgehogs (based on a fragment attributed to the ancient Greek poet Archilochus, who postulated that “the fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing”). Or perhaps Keno’s doggedness is akin to Philip Pullman and His Dark Materials trilogy, in which human beings have daemons, animal extensions and incarnations of their souls.
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Regardless of splitting coarse hairs, consider the facts for canine Keno. First, there’s his pedigree. Keno is a no-nonsense, hardworking Yankee purebred: Dad was in the antiques trade and, as young pups, he and his twin brother, Leslie, were not only collecting but selling Americana. As both Keno brothers have avowed, and as they wrote in their shared diary at the ripe old age of 12, “We are antiques dealers.” Later, an undergrad at Hamilton College (where he majored in art history, natch), Keno paid for much of his tuition through prudent and precocious antiques transactions from the intervening teenage years. He then proceeded to deepen his knowledge through work as a graduate fellow at Historic Deerfield and as a visiting scholar at Winterthur.
These academic successes were bones that nourished Keno’s commercial success as the director of the American furniture department at Doyle Galleries in New York and, later at Christie’s New York, where he was concurrently vice president of appraisals and a specialist in the American furniture department. Then, just as Keno transitioned from his 20s to his 30s, leaving puppyhood behind, he launched Leigh Keno American Antiques, specializing in 18th- and early-19th-century American furniture, decorative arts and paintings and where, as his website biography states, he “handled an astonishing variety of American furniture, folk art and paintings, including several masterpieces, setting world-record prices at auction.”
As a private dealer, Keno advised leading collectors and institutions in the building of their collections. But he and brother Leslie are better known for the advice and encouragement they’ve lent to owners, collectors and enthusiasts (as well as their armchair brethren) on the Emmy-nominated PBS television show Antiques Roadshow, where for the last hundred years they’ve served as volunteer appraisers. “Can you believe the show gets ten million viewers each week—without sex or violence?” says Keno. “Amazing. And what a great mass introduction for young people to arts and crafts!”
While Keno is quick to point out that he and Leslie are but two of hundreds of appraisers on Antiques Roadshow, it’s also true that only the Keno Brothers were spun off for two seasons of FIND! — a half-hour PBS series in which Leigh and Leslie staged home invasions throughout the United States, searching for beauty old and newly rediscovered, punctuated by chats with interior designers and aesthetes about, well, beauty and trends in beauty. “It was terrific, really great!” says Keno of the 26-episodes-per-season show. “But whereas Antiques Roadshow takes only six weekends per year, FIND! was overwhelming given our jobs and our families.”
Additionally, in 2000, the Kenos co-authored, along with Joan Barzilay Freund, Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture in which they talked about their own tales of discovery. They’ve also written extensively about furniture and design for House Beautiful and This Old House , and continue as editors-at-large and columnists for Traditional Home. Besides substantial newspaper and magazine space, they’ve also received the National Humanities Medal, in 2005 from President Bush. (Through force of habit, yes, they did indeed tacitly evaluate the pieces in the Oval Office, and the then-Prez did acknowledge that he knew exactly who they were by dubbing them “the furniture guys” as sobriquet.)
Both Kenos then returned to the White House for the History Channel’s “Behind Closed Doors,” in which they and First Lady Laura Bush conducted a televised tour focusing on the White House’s design, history, and fine and decorative arts. “It was the first time this had been done since Jackie Kennedy did it in the early ’60s,” notes Leigh. “It was great.”
All exceptional, even extraordinary. But still within the bailiwick of an antiques dealer (after all, there are how many celebrity chefs?). Last August, however, Keno went absolutely off lead. That’s when he announced the formation of Leigh Keno Auctions. “I’d been thinking about it for a couple of years, but it crystallized last year, opening night at the Philadelphia Antiques Show,” says Keno, “I just thought, there’s room for another auction house and this is something I have to do.” A full-service auction house, its first viewing of 125 highlights was held last month at the Loews Regency Hotel on Park Avenue, and the gavel will come down at its inaugural auction May 1 and 2 at the Marriott Hotel in Stamford, Connecticut.
To say that Keno is excited — this the man described by Dana Stevens in a 2003 Slate article as “engagingly hyperactive” and by Eve Kahn last month in The New York Times as “maniacally enthusiastic” — would be a gross understatement. “For the last three nights I’ve gotten up at 2:30 a.m., 3:00 a.m. and 2:00 a.m., my head bursting with ideas, then I’m up at 6:00 a.m. making steak and eggs for my son. I feel fundamentally energized; really, really excited,” he says, progressing to describe choice pieces in the upcoming sale. There’s the pair of large Rococo web-footed butter boats by Paul Revere, Jr. (1735–1818), of “Midnight Ride” renown: “He only made ten in his lifetime that we known about, and only four or five exist with three in museums, leaving one or two in private hands.” There’s also a nest of eight prized circa 1880 Nantucket baskets, a Chippendale claw-and-ball Mahogany drop-leaf table attributed to Newport master John Goddard, not to mention a beautiful Duncan Phyfe crib made for Phyfe’s own grandson. Beautiful, but within Keno’s specialty and therefore not unexpected.
Yet there are also 20th-century works by the likes of Man Ray (a sculpture) and Childe Hassam (a watercolor), Old Masters prints from no less than Dürer, fabulous jewelry in the Art Deco style, even a major 18th-century painting that was last seen in the 1820s (a portrait by John Trumbull that Keno was discovering and verifying the day of our interview, its importance is incontestable. Keno was so excited about it he generously tipped his hand then swore me to secrecy. But look for it).
What sets Keno’s house apart? What are the tenets for his new kingdom? First, he explains, uniformly low estimates. “My estimates are on average one-third to one-fourth, if not less, than evaluation value,” he says, adding that high estimates not only discourage bidders and interest, “they’re like bragging — and nobody likes a braggart, just as we all root for and find good in the underdog.” High estimates, he explains, also create an expectation of an object’s perfection, a rather unforgiving perception that, if not met, would discourage interest. Second, Keno will have no ownership in any lot except what is clearly marked, and those lots will be sold without reserve. “I not only need to practice what I preach, I want to.” Third, an unparalleled emphasis on service: from a consignor’s first query to sale and payment. “My name is on the door. I’ll be on the podium, and I own 100 percent of this company [Keno chose to have no outside investors]. I’m going to work my tail off to make sure that my clients are happy, that every piece brings the best possible price.”
In many ways what Keno is selling is himself. His name, his reputation, his years of goodwill both given and got. And that’s where the border collie rounds back. Highly motivated, work oriented, and considered by many to be the most intelligent breed of dog, they’re also intensely loyal and single-minded to the point of obsessiveness. They’re herders, meaning they return to double-check that nothing is forgotten, left behind or overlooked. But they’re also companions — meaning they’re dogs, meaning they care about what we think about them, meaning they want to please us.
Wanting to make everybody happy is a deep-seated Keno trait, one he has called his curse numerous times to numerous writers (me included). In recounting Antiques Roadshows, Keno speaks about how he seeks out attendees who look down in the mouth and about how he proceeds to chat up their “treasure,” reminding them that while the piece might not have the monetary worth they’d hoped for, it’s nevertheless a. beautiful; b. unique; c. part of their family’s history; or d. in some way extraordinary. But even before Keno finishes his story, he’s already circling back, pointing out that he is not the only one who does this: “My brother does it, too … in fact, all the appraisers make sure the experience is good for everybody.”
Keno is ready to share accolades, to share credit, to share generally. What he won’t share is gossip. What he can’t spare is a bad word, swipe or besmirchment. Keno, it seems, is constitutionally incapable of not being nice. In discussing what catalyzed starting his auction house, it’s not that he identified a hole in the marketplace (meaning, by extension, that either a big dog or regional player wasn’t doing a good job). Rather it’s because “there’s enough business for everyone, and for me it seemed a natural evolution.”
Time and time again across a catalogue of subjects, Keno would return to an anecdote or explanation — to clarify, to amend, to make sure he wasn’t appearing critical or less than constructive. At first, there’s the professional desire to probe deeper, to be harder, to get something obviously meatier. “Yes, but isn’t that category wildly overvalued? Can you believe what that piece sold for? Isn’t he a crook?” But the flow of the positive, as well as the flood of interesting data emphasizing the rare and wonderful, won the day and rendered me mute. Even so, stepping into honey, aware I was about to drown, I’d been tempted toward some benignly sarcastic fun, to ask Keno to say something caustic about somebody — anybody! And then, as I sank deeper to joke. “So, Leigh, just how sexy was Laura Bush? George?” But in the end I couldn’t. I’d drank the blond Keno Kool-Aid. Sold!
“Would,” I wondered, “Leigh Keno be proud of me?”
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