November 27, 2000 12:00 PM

The Antiques Roadshow was 15 minutes from taping when experts Leigh and Leslie Keno whipped out a screwdriver and began dismantling a claw-and-ball-footed American pie-crust table, possibly worth a half million dollars. They just had to confirm their suspicion that the cleats holding the tabletop to its base were not original. “Not everybody would do that—it’s risky,” says Peter Cook, the show’s executive producer. “What if you can’t get it back together again?” But the Kenos did, and they were right. The table’s value was quickly slashed by some $480,000.

Such dramatic moments, captured on PBS’s most popular prime-time show, have catapulted the 43-year-old identical twins to celebrity status in the refined world of antique furniture. Admirers more accustomed to expressing excitement in whispers shriek at the sight of them. Thanks to the Roadshow’s 15 million viewers (and appearances on NBC’s Today show, CNN and elsewhere), the Kenos were reportedly offered a $1 million advance for their just-published guide and memoir, Hidden Treasures, written with Joan Barzilay Freund. The telegenic brothers downplay their renown, though. “We’re just two guys who like brown wood,” says Leigh, leaving room—as each habitually does—for his brother to add, “We’re used-furniture salesmen.”

Admittedly, part of the fascination with the Kenos is their twinship. Six-foot-tall Leigh, born 13 minutes earlier, stands a bit straighter and is more exuberant; Leslie has an indent on his nose and is more businesslike. “They’re a young, personable, honest pair,” says prominent New York City antiques dealer Albert Sack, 85, adding, “They’re masters of publicity.” But it’s the Kenos’ energy and resolve that most impress their peers. “They’re very determined acquisitors,” says Baltimore dealer Michael Flanigan. “Like hound dogs, they stay on the scent.”

They caught a memorable whiff during a Roadshow segment in 1997, when a retired teacher showed up at a Secaucus, N.J., taping for a free appraisal of a card table she had bought for $25 at a yard sale 30 years earlier. Underneath the table the Kenos found a label signed by 18th-century craftsmen John and Thomas Seymour. Leigh asked, “Do you have any idea what this table is worth?” He estimated its value at between $200,000 and $300,000 and, grabbing the woman’s hand, said, “Feel my heart.”

The Kenos’ appetite for antiques was cultivated early. They were 5 when their mother, Norma, now 68, opened an antiques shop in an old red barn on the family’s 95-acre farm in Mohawk, N.Y. Their father, Ronald, now 70, a retired art teacher, taught them about craft and beauty. Leigh recalls that their dad would stop the car and say, “Look over there. See the pediment over the door? Look how the light hits it like an Edward Hopper painting.”

The twins knew antiques were their destiny from the time they were 7 and happily digging up old stoneware in a root cellar. Though they played football with their older brother Mitchell, now 47 and Leigh’s assistant, they preferred riding their Suzuki trail bike tandem to deserted barns and prospecting for antique jugs and hinges. By age 12 the twins were wheeling and dealing at the famed Brimfield, Mass., flea market. Small enough to peer under tables, they often noticed “the damnedest things other people had missed,” says their dad. After Leslie and Leigh graduated in 1979 from Williams and Hamilton Colleges, respectively, they headed for New York City. Within four years, Leslie, just 26, became the youngest department head in Sotheby’s recent history, and, soon after, Leigh became a vice president for appraisals at rival Christie’s.

Since Leigh struck out on his own as a dealer 14 years ago, the twins occasionally find themselves on opposite sides of a transaction. In 1987, after Leslie had reeled in an extraordinary 18th-century Chippendale wing chair for Sotheby’s to sell, he watched Leigh buy it, in a nail-biter, with a record $2.75 million bid on behalf of American furniture collector H. Richard Dietrich Jr. “I had total confidence in him,” Dietrich says today. “I didn’t feel I overpaid.”

By all accounts the Kenos are extremely close. Leslie lives in a duplex apartment in Manhattan with his wife, Emily, 34, an ex-Sotheby’s colleague, and daughter Ashley, 4. Leigh, a bachelor jointly raising a son, Brandon, 3, with the boy’s mother, Jasmin Español, 31, a nurse, dines regularly at Leslie’s house. For fun, the twins take turns racing their 1979 Ferrari in Wisconsin. “I’ll never have a friend as good as Leslie,” says Leigh. To which Leslie can’t help adding, “I feel the same way.”

Bruce Frankel

Jennifer Frey in New York City

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