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Keno brother says he loves appraisal job on 'Roadshow'

| Friday, Oct. 4, 2002

Antiques expert Leigh Keno's taste in fine collectibles has been refined considerably since he took up the hobby as a young boy.

Among the first treasures he and his twin brother, Leslie, proudly brought home to their parents in New York's Mohawk Valley were wrought-iron hinges and door handles they had pried off dilapidated barn doors.

He keeps some of the vintage hardware — a pair of heart-shaped latches — on his desk in his New York City office, along with one of his favorite decorated stoneware crocks bearing the blue image of a lion.

At age 45, Leigh Keno still is enamored by three childhood passions: "Antiquing, fly-fishing and anything on wheels."

In their book, "Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture" (Warner Books Inc., $15.95), the Keno brothers discuss their collecting adventures, stories they'll share at a presentation at 10 a.m. Oct. 12 at Sewickley Academy as part of the Sewickley Antiques Show.

Leslie Keno works for Sotheby's auction house in New York City, and Leigh Keno operates his own antiques gallery in Manhattan. The brothers are best known for their appearances on "Antiques Roadshow," the PBS television series that takes a team of antiques appraisers all over the country to evaluate objects brought in by local residents.

The brothers have served as guest experts on the show since it began in 1996.

For six weekends each summer, the Kenos attend tapings of the "Roadshow," meeting new people and evaluating belongings. The days can be long, Leigh Keno says, but "I always keep in mind that these people have been waiting in line for hours to see if their item is valuable. I like to make sure people leave with something they didn't know (about the piece and its history) when they came."

Sometimes, the appraisers have the easy job of recognizing a valuable item and breaking the good news — maybe a great-grandmother's favorite antique vase isn't merely the dust catcher her relatives thought it was.

Then there are what Keno calls the "other times," when the brothers have to tell a person that an "antique" isn't at all valuable — at least in today's marketplace — and maybe not ever. "I try to break it to them gently," he says.

One of Keno's most exciting segments on "Roadshow" was in Boston, when a chestnut chest crafted by John Cogswell in 1785 turned up, he says. "It was a masterpiece, the greatest piece of furniture I'll ever handle," he says. "The only way (the owner) found out about the valuable piece was by visiting the Museum of Fine Art in Boston, where he saw its identical twin.

"It turns out it was literally the only other one like it in the world." Keno won't reveal its selling price but indicates that the chest was "the crown jewel" of the Boston museum.

In his presentation, Keno will discuss some of the finds featured in the book, such as:

  • A rare suite of beautifully preserved Newport furniture hidden away in a house in East Hampton, N.Y.

  • The record-setting $2.75 million Cadwalader easy chair that had been used in a country day school.

  • A table bought at a yard sale for $25 and seen by the Kenos at the "Roadshow" that later brought in more than $500,000 at auction.

    Keno advises people that antiques can be as close as inside their homes, "not just in an attic or a basement, but right around you." One of the best aspects of "Roadshow," he says, is hearing the stories of how people discovered or obtained items.

    When he sells antiques, he tells his clients, "You're buying a piece of our history." And when they trace the background of their valuable possessions, he notes in "Hidden Treasures," "the search for such answers is really a search for the key to America's past."

    In the book, the Kenos write that antiques are "tangible documents of a truly American character, with their ingenious designs, clever use of local (and imported) materials and clear evidence of their makers' tireless labors."

    And if that isn't a good enough reason to become a collector, Keno has his own: "It's so much fun. It's just great."

    "Antiques Roadshow" can be seen at 8 p.m. Mondays and 5 p.m. Saturdays on WQED Channel 13.

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