Leslie and Leigh Keno '79 turn their passion for antiques into a television sensation
By Roy Schecter '73
"I'm underneath the table with Russ," Leslie says in answer to the ring of his cellphone. We're in a Manhattan apartment, and the object under scrutiny is a handsome old drop-leaf table that the owner bought years ago in a Vermont barn. Russ is sizing up camera angles, and Les, as always, is thrilled to be experiencing the flipside of an antique. But he has to take this call from his wife, and his brother, standing nearby, is getting a little antsy. "Come on, let me get down there," says Leigh, impatient to make his own inspection.
Before long, both of them are on the floor, flashlights in hand, scouring the woodwork with their eyes and their decades of experience in appraising furniture from the first two American centuries. And now it becomes difficult to tell which brother is which, because, like matching pieces of fine furniture that become exceptionally valuable when paired together, Leslie Keno and his brother, Leigh Keno '79, are identical twins.
The Keno brothers (or "the boys," as their producer-director Russell Morash calls them) don't plan to give up their day jobs anytime soon. At the still-tender age of 46, they have long been at the top of their profession: Leigh has dealt in masterpieces worth many, many millions of dollars as the owner of his own townhouse gallery in midtown Manhattan. Just a short hike up the East Side, where many of those beauties have been sold at auction, Les is senior vice president of American furniture and decorative arts at Sotheby's.
But the twins are also moonlighting these days as the stars of Find!, the highest-rated weekly series to premiere on PBS this past season. In it, they flawlessly play themselves: two well-educated, articulate and ever-courteous gentlemen who, when they spot a great old piece of furniture, behave like kids at a Krispy Kreme. What the fox is to the hounds, what the white whale was to Ahab, the undiscovered antique is to the Kenos.
Their enthusiasm is manifest to anyone who's watched their onscreen appraisals for Antiques Road Show over the last eight years, and in their new half-hour program, they do Road Show in reverse: instead of bringing antiques to the boys, Find! brings the boys to the antiques. Leigh and Les, accompanied by Morash and his video crew, take their expertise into the homes of real people and tell them what their stuff is worth. They're greeted enthusiastically at the door ("Hey, it's the Keno brothers. Come on in!"). Then, like pirates boarding a galleon, they head straight for the treasure and do everything but break out the rum when an especially fine prize surfaces. The show's most entertaining moments come when they deliver an appraisal of a highboy, a lowboy or anything in between that runs into more figures than the owners ever imagined. But it's obvious that, however delighted the owners are, they are hardly more delighted than the Kenos themselves.
Furniture is not the only stuff of value the boys "find" in people's homes, and in the show they often consult experts in other fields, such as paintings, books, posters, dolls, maps and even fossils. They explain how to care for antiques and visit designer showhouses that mix old things with reproductions and contemporary furnishings to good effect. But what's most memorable from the first 26 shows (starting last October and now in re-runs) are the home visits. The most indelible of these took place when a local auctioneer suggested the Kenos visit a modest domicile outside of Boston. There, in the attic, they found a landscape painting by Martin Johnson Heade, now considered to be among the great 19th-century American artists. The Kenos had the painting authenticated by an expert at the Fogg Museum at Harvard, then returned to tell the owner that its estimated worth was several hundred thousand dollars. A later program took TV viewers to the auction at which the owner sold the painting for a bit more than $1 million. "We dreamed of a discovery like this," the Kenos say. "We couldn't have written a better script."
What makes Find! so much fun, though, is that it has no script. "It's the thrill of discovery -- it's personal, it's immediate, and it satisfies the voyeur in all of us," says Eric Thorkilsen '73, president of This Old House Ventures, which produces that eponymous home improvement show and whose sister company produces Find!. "Viewers are intrigued by the passion these guys display, watching them race through people's homes, looking in the attic, searching through drawers. Leigh and Les have established a down-to-earth connection with the audience. They're the real thing."
Although the Keno twins have almost everything in common, there's one thing Leigh shares with Thorkilsen that he doesn't with his brother: they are both Hamilton alumni. Thorkilsen was an English major who, after graduating, interned at Time Inc. on the business side of a magazine in development called People. He advanced to a variety of senior management positions, becoming the launch publisher of Martha Stewart Living and president of Martha Stewart Television. When Time Inc. acquired the assets of This Old House a few years ago, Thorkilsen transformed a beloved TV show into a multi-media brand that now reaches 52 million adults each month.
While Thorkilsen was finding his way at Time, the Kenos were finding themselves at Herkimer County Community College, eight miles from their home in Mohawk, N.Y. In their spare time, they pursued two activities that you don't find together on many résumés: playing in rock bands and working at the local historical society. During two years at HCCC, they earned good grades, then sought out the liberal arts. Les chose that small college in Williamstown, Mass., whose wonderful furniture collection he proceeded to study and catalogue.
Leigh followed a parallel course at Hamilton, where he was responsible for installing the monuments that line the path to the cemetery between Bristol Center and Minor Theater. He discovered them in an overgrown field -- they were relics of the 19th-century practice in which graduating seniors laid a stone in honor of their class -- and got permission from then-provost Sidney Wertimer to resurrect them. When a surprised President Martin Carovano found out about the stones, he reached for the phone. "Leigh, you wouldn't know anything about these monuments, would you?" he asked, both chiding and thanking him for cutting the red tape of approvals by architects, trustees and so on.
As an undergraduate, Leigh also organized an exhibition of paintings and furniture from the College collection (as reported by John Suplee '69 in a 1979 issue of this magazine), for which he and David Hayes '81 printed a catalogue on the (hand set) Alexander Hamilton Press in the Root Hall basement. The exhibit showed the creative flair that would mark Leigh's budding career; it featured an antique Windsor chair that no one could mistake for a resting place because it was hung on the wall like a portrait. He also devised a plan for safely storing old paintings in the basement of Burke Library, a necessity because some of them, long hung in Commons, had 80-year-old mashed potatoes eating into the canvas.
The Kenos, though collegiate wunderkinder, prepared for their roles in Find! at an even earlier age. In grade school, they retrieved old door hinges, handles and latches from abandoned and dilapidated barns around Mohawk. Soon they moved from barn hardware to ceramics and before long were collecting and trading in oatmeal-colored stoneware. "It was an incredible place to grow up," says Leigh, "because the economy wasn't good and the great old houses hadn't been fixed up (read "ruined"). Beauty hadn't been swept away by progress."
When they were 12, the twins started a joint diary. Their opening proclamation: "We are antique dealers." How many kids know what they want to be when they grow up? The Kenos knew what they were before they grew up. Today, however, they seem younger than ever. Once they were precocious entrepreneurs, seizing flea market bargains and negotiating with pros in the antique trade. Now, as men of fortune and fame, they exhibit a childlike energy and irrepressibility. That's the quality Russ Morash finds so appealing. And he should know. Morash put Julia Child on television, created This Old House and has won 14 Emmy Awards for these and other PBS programs. "The boys are still learning to work in front of the camera," he says. "They're getting more comfortable, but we don't want them too comfortable. They're real people -- not actors. We don't want to turn them into George Clooney."
Morash, busy on other projects, wasn't familiar with the Kenos when the possibility of Find! came up. The twins had brought the idea to Thorkilsen, who felt that PBS would go for it only if Morash were attached. It so happened that while the Kenos were giving a lecture in Palm Beach, Morash was vacationing there, and at Thorkilsen's request he reluctantly agreed to attend. The next day Thorkilsen got a call on his cell phone. "Eric!" said Russ, "You've got to sign these guys right now. They're fantastic! It's like getting in on the ground floor with Elvis."
There may never be a Graceland in Mohawk, but Find! was an immediate success. A lot of behind-the-scenes work goes into the show, starting with suggestions for home visits that the Kenos receive from associates and friends, and from the hundreds of e-mails per week (digital photos included) they receive from people hoping for a twin visit. The fortunate few are advance-scouted by field producer Matt Buckley or associate producer Laura LeBlanc, who research the most promising items to help the Kenos prepare. When the boys, Morash and a small video crew arrive, they meet the owners, examine the objects and rehearse what they plan to say. But they don't tell the owners how valuable they think their stuff is -- they save that for the camera, to keep the reaction spontaneous.
Find! is shot with a single video camera in long, fluid, complex takes -- a very demanding approach for untrained "talent" like Leigh and Les. Morash uses a hand-held video monitor to check the framing and gives instructions to the cameraman via a mike and headphones. He works out the movements, shapes the discussion and edits the dialogue on the spot. "I want it shorter!" is a typical command. If anyone makes a mistake, the two- or three-minute sequence has to be re-shot, usually to the exhortation of "We'll nail it this time, boys."
The show is partly a demonstration of communication skills Leigh developed at Hamilton -- skills that both he and Thorkilsen agree are essential for whatever you do in life. Thorkilsen: "When you're in a business that seeks to attract an audience with creative content, you're doing what English majors at Hamilton are trained to do: understand what the writer was trying to say and the effect it had on the reader. I listen to what the reader or viewer says, then work with the creative people to refine and improve the result. To be effective, I have to articulate my ideas directly, cogently and forcefully."
Leigh says he also benefited from Hamilton's core focus on writing and speaking. "In speech class, when I said that I 'related to a particular piece of furniture,' Warren Wright would say, 'Mr. Keno, you have relatives, but you don't relate to something.' I loved that. I was able to use my interest in paintings and furniture to practice my public speaking, and it helps to have that skill when you're dealing with clients." It also helped when the Kenos wrote their book, published in 2000, called Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture, an account of their true-life adventures in the antique trade that has more suspense than many novels in that genre.
Find! has also benefited from the critical perspective that Thorkilsen says he learned at Hamilton. "In the 30 years I've worked with magazine editors," he says, "I've felt it was an advantage to be the link between the reader and editor -- not to know as much about the subject as the editor, but to know what makes the reader pay attention. I told the Kenos -- and I'm glad they haven't held it against me -- that no one would watch a show about antiques. To be successful, it had be more than that; it had to benefit a wider range of viewers."
In that regard, everyone involved with the program agrees that, as they head into the second season, it will only get better. There will be fewer show house tours, and the boys will occasionally take the audience into the homes of some of their celebrity clients. "It'll be an interesting contrast," says Thorkilsen. "They'll visit the average homeowner, who may have a treasure or two -- then show us what, say, Harrison Ford's place looks like."
Celebrities or no, the Kenos' own appeal depends on a lack of snobbery about antiques. As Leigh says, "It's not the objects themselves, but the stories behind them, the community of interest they create and the terrific people we meet that really matter." They encourage collectors not to treat antiques as museum pieces, but as things to be used and enjoyed -- one of the topics they'll address when a print version of Find! comes out this fall as a test for a regularly published magazine. Leigh practices what he preaches: he even allows his 6-year-old son, Brandon, to play with a rare Egyptian wood-carving. "I don't want him to be afraid of handling these things," he says.
Brandon, meanwhile, is getting the same kind of education the Kenos got from their father. Encouraged to stop and look at the buildings as he and Leigh walk to school, Brandon shouts out, "Dad ... pilasters! Dad ... gothic windows!" So, perhaps the most valuable Keno family heirloom is their passion for antiques -- the passion that binds the brothers more closely than ever as they do their best to share it with the television audience. How well do they succeed? Leigh shrugs and says, "I'm very self-critical. I see my mistakes, where I wanted to say this or should have said that. It's hard to watch yourself on television. Although in a way, I'm used to it. I've spent my whole life looking at a guy who looks just like me."
Roy Schecter '73 is a freelance writer and consultant living in Woodstock, N.Y., having survived a long stint at IBM as a speechwriter, communications manager and (of late) producer of the company's TV commercials. He is older than most of his furniture, and it shows.