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Leigh and Leslie Keno are a lot like talent scouts who spot supermodel potential in grocery-store clerks. Their seemingly X-ray vision cuts through the hype, or lack thereof, as they judge whether an object has what it takes to become an antiques superstar. As country kids growing up in New York state’s Herkimer County, they spotted beauty and history in centuries-old clay crocks, rusty barn-door hardware, and painted furniture caked in layers of dirt, all affordable because their value wasn’t completely understood.
Today, the Keno brothers hunt for furnishings from all periods and styles that they believe have both staying power and potential for financial growth. Looks that grab them? Hold the rosettes and ruffle carvings. They’re looking for spare elegance devoid of decoration, which describes both a crystal-clear Lucite chair and a Lancaster County Amish quilt. They’re aiming for fresh, classic beauties with potential for long-term growth in the far-off future—or, at least, to avoid depreciation. And it’s their proven ability to pluck pretty pieces out of obscurity that turned them into The Antiques Roadshow’s favorite appraisers.
But how to predict whether a particular style has the power to endure? “Good design doesn’t have to be old, but it has to reflect the period in which it was made,” says Leslie. “Great new forms, some very beautiful things, are being created right now or were made in the last 50 years.”
To spot emerging trends, the Kenos keep an eye on museum exhibitions, auction prices, and recently released design books that catalog new discoveries and current scholarship.
So what’s still affordable? Here, the Keno brothers identify undervalued styles and periods worth investigating.
Text by Doris Athineos
Produced by Leigh Keno and Leslie Keno
Photograph: Bryan McCay
Forget Italian “starchitects” and Scandinavian hipsters. The real superheroes of postwar design are American artisans who created supercool furniture at prices young couples could afford. “You hear so much about the Europeans, but Americans were great at mid-century design,” says Leigh Keno. Powerhouses like Charles and Ray Eames, Edward Wormley, Florence Knoll, and Eero Saarinen (who moved from Finland to the United States as a tweenager) enjoyed a surge of popularity that peaked in 1999. But prices have since flattened as design devotees chase the neo-neo thing.
“Americans from the 1950s and ’60s have suddenly fallen off the radar,” adds Leslie, who recently snapped up a rare rosewood version of the Eames “potato chip” chair, formally known as the “DCW” (Dining Chair Wood)—it’s the chair shown here—for $2,100 at Treadway/Toomey Auctions in Cincinnati.
“Eames was truly a visionary,” enthuses Leslie. “He designed not only the chair but the molding machine to make it. He even developed plywood leg splints for the Navy.”
The Kenos suggest that design buffs scout for modern classics close to home. For instance, Edward Wormley worked for Dunbar Furniture, located in Berne, Indiana. And head for Bucks County, Pennsylvania, in search of design masterpieces by Paul Evans. Some of the biggest bargains? Paul McCobb’s brass-and-wood furniture, George Nelson’s fiberglass chair, and Warren Platner’s wire chair.
Photograph: Bryan McCay
Pop artist Andy Warhol blew minds when he turned Campbell’s soup cans into art, but his taste in furniture was surprisingly classical, harking back to ancient Greece and Rome. American classical furnishings made between 1815 and 1840—the last great period of handmade furniture—are also called Neoclassical and Empire. It was a time when American artisans, borrowing from French and English sources, turned out klismos chairs, card tables, and recamiers, some brushed with green-based paint to simulate aged bronze and made from the finest figured woods (“rosewood and crotch-grain mahogany from the tropics,” says Leslie).
The retail price, however, is bargain basement. “You can buy classical furniture by the pound right now,” notes Leslie, only half-joking. At regional auction houses, he reports that sideboards go for $1,500 and game tables for as little as $800. The 1815 sideboard with figured mahogany shown here sold at auction for $4,025. Even signature pieces like 7-foot-long sofas with carved claw feet can be found for $800. The other big bonus? There’s no fooling around. “You just don’t find fakes because there’s no money in it,” he says.
But, be forewarned, the reopening of the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s expanded Greek galleries may spark a new love affair with this cool, classy style.
Photograph: Courtesy of Cowan’s Auction House
If you’re after maximum wall power for minimum bucks, check out Lancaster County (Pennsylvania) Amish quilts made before 1940. “The best look like Rothko paintings,” opines Leslie, who admires the deep, saturated colors and geometric shapes—diamonds, squares, and bars. Currently, the market for Amish quilts is so sleepy that neither major auction house handles them. Retail prices range from $1,000 for a 1940s light-colored, rayon cloth model to $10,000 for a 1920s rare, red diamond-in-a-square wool quilt. The best pieces are stitched together with black thread.
“There’s a lot of new research going on,” says historian Jonathan Holstein, who, in 1971, curated Abstract Design in American Quilts, the ground-breaking Whitney Museum show that was the first to exhibit quilts as paintings. There’s also a new museum, the International Quilt Study Center & Museum in Lincoln, Nebraska, slated to open in April. The museum owns more than 2,400 quilts from 24 countries and includes quilts donated by Holstein, who penned A Quiet Spirit (Fowler, 1996), the seminal essay on Lancaster quilts. “The market bottomed out in the 1990s and can only head in one direction,” says Leigh.
Photograph: Courtesy of the International Quilt Study Center & Museum
Traditionalists may not imagine that see-through style mixes with mahogany, but clearly it does. “Lucite lightens up a dark room,” says Leigh, the master of mahogany, who sees nothing incongruous about stocking up on high-end plastic treasures, including a set of dining chairs with carved Lucite splats. “Lucite isn’t new,” reminds Leslie, who has spotted crystal-clear coffee tables, chairs, and desks at Salvation Army stores and thrift shops. Dismissing it as ’70s kitsch is a big mistake, he says. DuPont introduced clear plastic under the brand name Lucite (also called Plexiglas and Perspex) in the 1930s. And when a piece pops up at auction, design groupies go the distance. For instance, Shiro Kuramata’s “Miss Blanche” armchair, made of red roses embedded in clear plastic, soared to $318,000 at Christie’s London last year.
The trick is to load up on Lucite before it shows up at mid-century design auctions with a price that reflects its rock-star status. For instance, the club chair shown here by Vladimir Kagen sold for $420 (set of four, $1,680) in 2007 at Sollo Rago.
How to recognize vintage Lucite (most of which isn’t branded)? Hollywood glam (think plume-shaped backsplat chairs by Grosfeld House) indicates early vintage while later styles take more fluid forms. Vintage pieces often show their age, but stay away from discoloration and cracks. “Take out a magnifying glass and look for wear—very fine scratches,” advises Leslie. “Some pieces look like an ice-skating rink before the Zamboni comes out.” The Kenos don’t buff out age spots, but most modernists buff back to slick transparency. “Unlike wood grain, Lucite is a blank material,” points out Richard Wright of Chicago’s Wright auctions. “The only thing to care about is design.”
Photograph: Courtesy of Sollo Rago Modern Auction House
Best known for dangling mobiles, artist Alexander Calder (1898–1976) also designed carpets (made in Guatemala), some of which can be found for less than $3,000. “Look for decorative objects by A-list artists,” Leslie counsels.
Photograph: Courtesy of Sollo Rago Modern Auction House