Leigh Keno

National Humanities Medal


When twin brothers Leigh and Leslie Keno were just twelve years old, they declared themselves in a joint diary: "We are antique dealers."

It was in their blood. When they were very young, their mother ran a small antiques shop out of the house. Their earliest memories are of traveling with their parents to antique shops and flea markets. In their twelve-year-old hand, they wrote, "We actually owe part of the intelligence that we have in antiques to . . . our Mother and Father. They got us interested in this fabulous hobby. We think that they deserve a good hand. We want at least 1/2 of the credit to go to our fantasticly wonderful parents."

"Collecting is very primal," says Leigh Keno. "Observing objects, picking them up, taking them home, categorizing them and comparing one to the next is a natural thing to do. It goes back even to collecting shells on a beach." Growing up in upstate New York, far from accessible shells, the Keno brothers began by setting out on their Suzuki trail bike and exploring the ruined barns and houses around them. They amassed quite a collection of late-eighteenth and early-nineteenth-century wrought-iron door handles and hinges.

From that, they moved onto collecting stoneware.

"Once we found an object, we wanted to learn as much as we could about it," says Leslie Keno. "We loved looking up the maker, doing research on when they worked, trying to figure out how a piece was made, how it was turned on a potter's lathe. We were very interested and in awe of the craftsmanship that was inherent in these beautiful objects that we call antiques."

Today, both Leigh and Leslie Keno are foremost experts in Americana antiques. Formerly vice president in the appraisal department at Christie's, Leigh now owns Leigh Keno American Antiques. Leslie Keno is senior vice president and senior specialist of American furniture and decorative arts and director of business development at Sotheby's in New York. They have been involved in the discoveries and sales of important pieces that have broken records for prices. They are perhaps most well known for their many appearances on PBS's popular Antiques Roadshow, as well as their own PBS show, Find.

Leslie Keno credits Antiques Roadshow for popularizing the appeal of collecting antiques. "The best part of the show is hearing what the owners have to say about the pieces," says Leigh Keno. "We make a point of letting the person talk and tell their story."

"The Antiques Roadshow really illustrates that these objects don't exist in a void," says Leslie Keno. "They are part of a sometimes very rich and complex history. The show is not just about the objects but also the stories and storytelling that accompany them."

"It's a show that you can watch and walk away from having learned something," says Leigh Keno. "Not only are you more versed in what you're looking at, but you can also possibly find a sleeper yourself."

A sleeper is a piece that's undervalued when found. It is the gold at the end of the treasure hunt, albeit faded, tarnished, worn, or broken. With their keen eyes, the Keno brothers have come across many sleepers in their careers. They have been especially adept at finding highly prized seventeenth-century furniture made by two distinguished Newport cabinetmaking families, the Goddards and Townsends. Pieces that have sold for millions of dollars at auction were found in such surprising places as chicken coops and rental houses. Often the owners had no idea of their rarity.

"The great thing in this field," says Leigh Keno "is that pieces turn up all the time that have never been documented or never been cataloged. You never know what's around the next corner."


About the National Humanities Medal

The National Humanities Medal, inaugurated in 1997, honors individuals or groups whose work has deepened the nation's understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens' engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other humanities subjects. Up to 12 medals can be awarded each year.