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A Cool Hand and a Keno Eye

Talk about great performances: Antiques Roadshow has become public TV's top-rated program and made stars of dealers Leigh and Leslie Keno. Now they're riding a seller's market ($8.25 million for a Queen Anne secretary?) right into the Winter Antiques Show.

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Extracting a drawer from an eighteenth-century high chest of drawers he plans to offer for $440,000 at his booth at Thursday night's opening of the Winter Antiques Show, Leigh Keno takes a sniff and breaks into a broad grin, as if savoring the perfect truffle soufflé.

"You can't fake the aroma of wood that's aged for 200 years," he insists. Given the stratospheric prices being paid for American furniture these days -- a Queen Anne carved-mahogany secretary bookcase fetched $8.25 million at Sotheby's last year, on the heels of a staggering $4.73 million for a Chippendale chest of drawers at Christie's -- it's not surprising that this year's Americana Week is shaping up to be an extravaganza. Kicking off with Thursday's gala -- the first highlight of the social season -- the event comprises an annual round of auctions and exhibitions where connoisseurs gather to gasp over details such as carved serpentine crests, scrolled acanthus leaves, and clawed-ball feet.

No one will be more at home amid the diminutive tycoons and precious artifacts than the exuberantly squeaky-clean Madison Avenue dealer Leigh Keno and his twin brother Leslie, a fellow showman and furniture sleuth who heads the American-furniture department at Sotheby's. Identically blond, blue-eyed, and almost preposterously affable, the Keno brothers are the reigning stars of the fiercely competitive world of American antiques. Sharing the same Savile Row tailor, they show up on occasion wearing similar bespoke suits. "It's a bit scary," Leigh admits. "We're like the Bobbsey twins." They once arrived separately at a post-auction party wearing identical custom-made shirts, having independently selected the same fabric from more than 300 swatches at Woods & Brown, their London shirt-makers. Even their dentist, Leslie notes, is spooked by the identical configuration of their teeth.

All the major players -- including the Kenos -- will be unveiling their wares this week, hoping to capture the imagination, and dollars, of a growing but still relatively small number of major collectors, like Robert Bass, the Texan billionaire who ponied up $12.1 million sight-unseen for the Nicholas Brown secretary at Christie's in 1990; the anonymous buyer who snapped up the Captain Brintnall Chippendale mahogany tray-top tea table with open talon feet for $3.65 million at the Winter Antiques Show two years ago; and Eddy Nicolson, who once dropped a record $1.45 million on a pie-crust tea table at Christie's.

As the American bull market continues to stampede, so does the seemingly insatiable demand for seventeenth- and eighteenth-century American furniture of exalted provenance and rarity. Selected with an almost maniacal devotion to authenticity (pieces discovered to have been cleaned, restored, or otherwise meddled with face the indignity of losing two thirds of their value), these totems of Colonial splendor are pursued by an expanding number of demanding private collectors forced to compete for objects of increasing scarcity. "There's a powerful psychology that says you want what you cannot have," observes Arie Kopelman, the president of Chanel, who is also the chairman of the Winter Antiques Show.

"They're nice boys," dealer Albert Sack confesses. "I just don't like to see them run away with all the attention."

Given the enormous sums of money at stake and the almost puritanical zeal for authenticity and original condition endemic to the world of American furniture, minute inspections are an inevitable ritual. So it is not unusual to see expensively dressed collectors and dealers crawling about on the salesroom floor.

"When you're looking at furniture," Leigh advises, "it's easier to have a single-breasted suit."

The fervor for Americana is hardly limited to the high end of the market. Thanks in part to the popularity of Antiques Roadshow, which is currently in its fourth season as PBS's most-watched series, with an audience of 14 million, as well as the runaway Internet success of eBay (where the average lot is $40), the previously rarefied world of fine antiques is becoming increasingly democratized.

To the exasperation of their competitors, the Keno twins appear to straddle both ends of the market with ease. Besides their status as the golden boys of Antiques Roadshow, they hold the distinction of having scored a $1 million book contract -- the biggest advance ever paid for a book on antiques ("Their fan base is just enormous," chirps their agent Susan Ginsburg) -- for Hidden Treasures, which is due in stores November 2000.

Elaborately self-effacing, the twins attribute their Brobdingnagian deal to the success of the TV series, which has turned them into celebrities. "Just about everyone loves the idea of a treasure hunt, you know?" Leslie says. "I think the show basically has touched a nerve. It's gotten people reconnected with the everyday objects they live with, and it's got them going to the attic or the basement, literally hunting for treasure."

Although based on an ostensibly banal premise -- people across America bring in objects for antiques experts to appraise for free -- the relentlessly folksy program makes for surprisingly irresistible television. When Roadshow stopped in Secaucus, New Jersey, two years ago, the nattily tailored twins made much of their heart-pounding excitement as they examined a mahogany card table brought in by Claire Beckmann, a retired local schoolteacher who had paid $25 for it at a yard sale some 30 years earlier.

Identifying it on the show as a 1798 masterpiece by Boston craftsmen Thomas and John Seymour, Leslie explained how hot sand was used to create its inlaid satinwood bowknots and tapering bellflowers. Summing up, the brothers declared the admirably grungy table to be worth between $200,000 and $300,000 -- the highest-ever estimate on Roadshow.


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