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A Cool Hand and a Keno Eye

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Of the two, Leslie is more conservative: more frequently seen in a tie, more palpably self-possessed, less hyperbolic. Though no less formal, Leigh is more animated, more rambunctious, and more obviously suited to the dealer's arts of flattery and charm.

For all their bonhomie, the twins are deeply competitive, despite their claims to the contrary. When responding to questions, each speaks engagingly before wincing from an abrupt under-the-table kick from his brother, convinced he is talking too much. "We're always getting bruised knees," Leslie explains. "But when you're twins, you automatically have a best friend," he adds brightly.

Moments later, however, the brothers launch into an unexpected, bloodcurdling exchange of invective and accusations occasioned by some imperceptible slight, which concludes with Leigh's telling Leslie, "You're a real piece of work."

Glancing nervously at the whirring tape recorder on the table as they recoil from their twin-world vituperation, both are full of apology, craving an opportunity for another interview and politely exhorting their lunch guest to erase their spat.

"We get along really well," Leigh says beseechingly. "We're just not good at faking it when we have an argument." Ten minutes later, they are exchanging affectionate slaps on the back as they bid adieu on Madison Avenue: "Bye, Leigh." "See ya, Les."

The next day, Leigh is sitting on the cozy, worn leather sofa in his second-floor showroom across the street, surrounded by piles of antique reference books and examining pieces he is thinking of including in his booth at the upcoming Winter Antiques Show. At four o'clock, two handsome tall-case antique clocks with major-league price tags chime a split second apart, eerily reminiscent of the Keno twins' ordering lobster bisque the day before.

"I'm very excited about this piece," Leigh says, pointing to a slender-cased, bonnet-topped clock in the corner that was made near Boston around 1800. Priced at $185,000, it has a face ornamented by a tiny rocking ship that bobs from side to side, animated by the swinging pendulum below. Not only does the clock have a distinguished provenance -- the piece has been in the same Massachusetts family since 1800 -- but its value is enhanced by the fact that the ship bears an American, not a British, flag. This makes it especially rare, Leigh explains, because American clocks from the period were often made using British mechanical parts from the prerevolutionary 1770s.

"With some clocks, you can see where someone has painted stars and stripes over a British flag," Leigh says. "It's amazing what a bit of red, white, and blue will do." If the flag were merely British, he notes, the entire clock would be worth roughly 30 percent less -- a difference of about $54,000. "It's quite something for an area that's about a quarter of an inch square," he admits.

Given some of the extravagant prices paid at auction for Americana during the past decade, it is curious to consider that for much of the twentieth century, American antiques were regarded as the poor cousins of British and French furniture.

Albert Sack, the respected Americana dealer who in 1934 joined the family business his pioneering father, Israel Sack, had started in 1905, recalls that it was not until the sixties that American furniture began to attract serious attention. "It was a matter of survival for 30 years," he says, noting that the first auction to bring in $100,000 for an item of American furniture was not until 1971. These days, however, while a fine English eighteenth-century turret-topped card table might fetch $20,000, a virtually identical piece made in America during the same period can command as much as $300,000. The wild discrepancy, it seems, is due to three principal factors: the relatively small quantity of furniture produced in America during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the scarcity of desirably unrestored objects reaching the marketplace, and the growing number and sophistication of deep-pocketed Americans eager to acquire examples of their nation's patrimony.

Making a distinction between what he calls consumer pieces (furniture someone might buy to decorate a home) and collector pieces (ranging from $100,000 into the millions), Sack notes that the fiercest competition these days is in the upper category. "It's become a very sophisticated market," he says, "with a big emphasis on scholarship and research. The new collectors are concentrating on the premier objects, and they're willing to pay."

Adding a notch to the intensity of the competition is the fact that collectors of Americana often develop cravings for furniture of specific periods and regions -- early rococo pieces from Boston or Philadelphia, for instance, or Federal gems from New York or Newport, with each city possessing its own golden period and master craftsmen -- creating a bidding frenzy when an outstanding piece that fills a hole in their collection appears on the market.

"The regional aspect is really a huge factor in people's passions," Leigh says. "It's really about patriotism, this pride in what our ancestors made and collected, even though these things are inspired by furniture and tastes in England."

To acquire and resell the best antiques and remain at the pinnacle of their trade, the Keno twins, like other successful antiques vendors, must cultivate an unimpeachable reputation, optimum exposure, and virtuoso charm.

One of the star dealers of the Winter Antiques Show, Leigh always holds the prime booth -- to the right as you enter the vast drill hall of the Seventh Regiment Armory on Park Avenue -- and invariably dazzles with one or two exceptional wares. Now in its forty-sixth year, the show has 72 dealers, a third of whom specialize in Americana, and is widely viewed as the premier Americana show in the country. As such, it inevitably inspires dealers like Leigh to put aside choice offerings during the year in order to captivate patrons each year in January.

Five years ago, he scored a memorable coup by flying to Buenos Aires in early January to inspect and purchase a rare $440,000 Federal inlaid-mahogany secretary bookcase with 25 églomisé glass panels, bringing it back just in time for the Winter Antiques Show. Jack Warner, the former CEO of the Gulf States Paper Corporation in Tuscaloosa and a longtime client of Leigh's, was intrigued to hear about it, but since Winter Antiques Show dealers are forbidden from exhibiting at the show any items that have been pre-sold, Warner flew to New York on opening night to buy it. "He was first on line to purchase it himself," Leigh recalls, grinning. Spotting a pair of tables on either side, Warner asked him to throw those on the bill, too. "I was pretty excited," Leigh says, "because it was all within twelve seconds."


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