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A Cool Hand and a Keno Eye

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That coup, subsequently chronicled by People magazine and replayed on Oprah, handily catapulted the brothers to a new level of nationwide glory, to the considerable dismay of revered longtime dealers like Albert Sack, of Israel Sack, Inc. "I suppose they're a marketable commodity," he grumbles, going on to confess that last year, tiring of their fresh-faced countenances, "I wrote to the Antiques Roadshow and said, 'You're giving them too much exposure,' and I got a letter back saying, 'You've got to admit they're cuter than you or I, and they have people running about asking for their autograph.'

"Listen," Sack adds. "They're nice boys, they're ambitious, and they're honest. I just don't like to see them run away with all the attention." That said, Sack lets slip that he will be appearing next week with almighty Martha herself on Martha Stewart Living, the morning TV show. "It's actually my third time on Martha," he says.

Aida Moreno, the executive producer of Antiques Roadshow, notes that the program's roster of 250 appraisers includes plenty of experts with a considerable following of their own (including Leslie's knowledgeable rival at Christie's, John Hays). But, she adds, "the Kenos are wonderfully curious, and they convey their love for what they do on TV." Another reason for all the hoopla, she says, is that "they're twins, which is sort of weird and fascinating."

Volunteering as traveling TV appraisers might not seem the best way to raise one's profile in the exalted world of $3.65 million Newport tea tables and $2.75 million Chippendale armchairs, but the Roadshow has actually generated significant business for the twins. The show's appraisers are forbidden from soliciting business. But that doesn't stop anyone in the crowd of 10,000 that typically attends the nationwide summertime weekend-taping sessions from picking up appraisers' business cards, which they are permitted to leave on a table by the exit.

"I remember thinking, Is she gonna call? Is she gonna call?" Leslie says, sitting in his new, sleekly appointed office at Sotheby's, recalling his trepidation before hearing from Claire Beckmann, the lady from Secaucus whose $25 card table he had appraised on Antiques Roadshow. To his relief, she called a week after their vertiginous encounter to express interest in selling it at Sotheby's.

"We're talking someone who's willing to own furniture with a grungy surface," Leslie says, "who's paying millions for the privilege of having those stains."

Her choice proved the wisdom of the major auction houses' forays into the populist world of dead-celebrity auctions, which began with the cookie-jar-and-major-Americana sale of Andy Warhol in 1987. Leslie recalls that Beckmann was engagingly frank about why she was interested in selling at Sotheby's. "She explained how she'd gone with a friend to the Jackie O exhibition," he says, "and she said she really loved the whole process -- John-John's first steps and all that." Leslie sold the card table for $541,500, including the buyer's premium of $51,000. (Although it was bought by Israel Sack, Inc., the underbidder happened to be Leigh.)

And Roadshow continues to yield agreeably auction-ready treasures. This Saturday, Sotheby's will offer a painted-pine portrait medallion of George Washington (Lot 607, estimated at $50,000 to $80,000) attributed to Samuel McIntire, a Salem, Massachusetts, architect and carver. Leslie appraised it last summer in Des Moines, Iowa, after its current owner, Thomas Gould, drove all the way from Minneapolis to offer it for consideration.

Twin novelty aside, who better to feed the public's cusp-of-the-millennium fascination for objects that bespeak the nation's history than the Keno brothers, with their thrill-of-the-chase stories about high-style collectibles? At 42, the twins still exude fanatical teenage glee. "That's super!" Leigh exclaims in his Madison Avenue showroom when a roving Americana scout calls to report a new find. "Another one! Oh, my God! Is it great?"

Given the intensity of their enthusiasm, it is not surprising to learn that the twins' passion for collecting was instilled at an early age. Their parents, Ronald Keno, now a retired art teacher, and his wife, Norma, ran a little antiques store across the street from their house in Mohawk, New York, where the boys grew up with their older brother Mitchell. Before long, the budding bespectacled antiquarians (they now wear contact lenses) had their own corner of their parents' shop, with business cards printed up by their father.

Poring over a box of diaries begun when they were 12 years old, Leigh points to their first entry, on July 16, 1969, where he wrote "We are antique dealers" in a backward-slanting hand. A few pages later, a naïve drawing of a nineteenth-century jug they purchased bears the inscription "Dynamite," followed by the declaration "Our love for antiques is great."

"It gave you an incredible sense of purpose and the thrill of the search," Leslie says of their childhood collection of decorative stoneware, which wound up financing their college educations.

Single-minded in their quest for treasures, the boys were wrapped up in their shared discoveries. With the dawn of adolescence, however, they began sparring for girls' attention in high school. "It got very competitive at one point," Leslie recalls. "The twin-jealousy thing was pretty terrible -- you know, when girls wanted one more than the other." These days, he insists, there is no rivalry between them. "I'm proud of Leigh, and I think he is of me," he says. "We're just happy for the other when he achieves something."

Opting to attend separate colleges, the twins moved in together in Manhattan upon graduation, taking jobs at different auction houses -- Leslie at Sotheby's, Leigh at William Doyle Galleries before moving to Christie's. While working at rival auction houses, they often found themselves pursuing the same property. "We just learned to talk about fishing, cars, and girls, and to talk about antiques only in very general terms," Leigh says.

Their identical looks frequently caused perplexing mix-ups. When Leigh turned up one afternoon at a Round Hill Road estate in Greenwich, a lady greeted him at the door, looking puzzled. "She said, 'Did you forget something?' " he recalls. "It turned out she'd called Sotheby's and Christie's, and Leslie had been there earlier. And we both happened to be wearing a blue blazer and the same gray pants," he adds. "She was pretty relieved to have me explain the situation."

Around the same time, Leslie stopped into Christie's one day and was aghast when Christopher Burge, the rival auction house's then chairman, came up to him and began going over confidential details of an upcoming sale. "I said, 'Wait! Don't tell me any more -- I'm Leslie,' " he remembers, laughing.

Arriving for lunch at the Hotel Carlyle one Sunday last month -- they now live two blocks apart on the Upper East Side -- the brothers fall into a halting ritual of politesse as they approach a revolving door. "After you," Leigh says. "After you," Leslie replies. "No, after you," Leigh insists. The impasse finally ends when Leigh, who is older by twelve minutes, propels his brother forward.

Inside, the eerie sibling echo continues as they glance up from the lavish menu, startling the waiter as they simultaneously utter the words "Lobster bisque." Today, Leigh is dressed in neatly pressed corduroys, Leslie in a blue blazer and gray flannels. Although they're virtually indistinguishable, the twins' good looks are subtly different: Leigh's nose is aquiline, Leslie's slants slightly to the left; Leigh has broader shoulders, Leslie is trimmer; and Leigh's blond hair is parted in the center, Leslie's to the side. "I don't think it's a conscious decision," Leslie says. "It was always that way, even when we were in our teens."


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