Leigh Keno was sprawled on the floor of the upstairs landing, twisting his body to get a good look at the bottom of a walnut lowboy and shining a small, hand-held yellow flashlight for a clearer view of its underside.
He pulled out some small drawers to see what kind of wood had been used inside the piece. It was hard yellow pine, a wood that he said pretty much had been cut down in New England by about the 1730s. He figured the piece was from Philadelphia, possibly from 1770 to 1790.
"That's a great survivor," he said.
It was the seventh time in about a half-hour that Leigh Keno had hit the floor in the antiques-filled house in West Hartford.
The lean, wiry antiques expert and dealer - well-known with his twin brother, Leslie Keno, for their appearances on 14 seasons of "Antiques Roadshow" on PBS - visited West Hartford and Bloomfield last week. He said he typically visits eight to 10 homes a month; sometimes he is contacted by collectors who have something to sell, sometimes by family members who want to liquidate an estate. And occasionally, as at this home in West Hartford, it was simply a chance to meet someone with an exceptional collection.
Recently, Leigh Keno also has been looking for objects for his newest venture - the inaugural auction of Keno Auctions, to be held at the Marriott Stamford on May 1 and 2.
Keno, whose antiques business is based in Manhattan, launched his auction company a few months ago, and ever since, he said, he has been making visits through New England, Pennsylvania and the Eastern Seaboard, lining up pieces for his first event.
"Every day is like a big treasure hunt for me. . . . You never know what's going to be through that next door or the next set of steps that maybe go up to the attic," he said. "You never know what's going to be just beyond that."
At the first West Hartford home he visited last week, he said, he was "like a kid in a candy shop." When he saw a small William and Mary spice cabinet with its original legs - "an extremely important" piece dated 1737 - Keno joked that we'd better call the paramedics.
"There are so many treasures here - a treasure around every corner."
When he spotted a copy of the book he wrote with his brother in 2002, "Hidden Treasures: Searching for Masterpieces of American Furniture," in the West Hartford collector's bookshelf, he offered to sign it.
"You're a true treasure hunter," Keno wrote, in part. "You have . . . a wonderful collection. I am truly honored to be here."
Keno, 52, grew up on a farm near Mohawk, N.Y., and he and Leslie starting going to auctions with their parents, who were antiques dealers, as early as he can remember - "probably when we were in the womb."
By the time they were 9 or 10, they also were digging for things around the house - for old bullets and other finds. Once they discovered a swirl marble. "We were convinced it was something from outer space," Keno recalled. They also collected bumblebees.
"It's a primal thing. Collecting is not just gathering; . . . it's amassing and organizing."
Being a dealer," Keno added, "buying and selling at auction and working at auction houses, you're able to see the whole range of things. You see the mediocre; you see the fakes. You see the better examples, and occasionally you see the best and the masterpiece."
He said his first vivid memory of an auction was at a country auction in a barn, when their mother let the boys bid on an 18th-century broad ax, the kind that would have been used to cut beams.
The memory of buying the ax at auction, "whether it was $20 or $30, that experience of bidding on it" is still so vivid, Keno said. "It's funny that it was wrought iron, and I collect wrought iron today. It's funny - we love all the things we grew up doing."
Another early auction memory: The auctioneer just couldn't get the bidding going on an old kerosene lamp. He started at $20 - no bidders, so he dropped the price to $10. Still nothing. Exasperated at the lack of interest, the auctioneer suddenly threw the lamp against a wall; it smashed into pieces.
The next item: a similar kerosene lamp.
"All the hands shot up," Keno recalled, adding, "I will refrain from that."
Gavel In HandKeno plans to conduct the auction in Stamford himself. He said he has conducted auctions in the past - briefly when he was at Christie's and, early in his career, for Doyle Galleries in New York. He plans to auction off 65 to 70 lots an hour. He already has about 580 lots for the auction, "give or take," and hopes to have about 800 for the two-day event.
Keno said his "mantra is low estimates." And he plans to have as few "reserve," or minimum, prices as possible.
"That creates a feeling and belief that is good - that it could sell for anything."
Another advantage of having no reserve, he said, is that it attracts more people.
"The great thing about an auction is you never know how high it could go. . . . When it does start low, you see hands in the air or phones ringing - it gives you confidence that you're not just bidding against the reserve. You're bidding against real people who like the same painting or object that you like. Those are actual people, willing to spend money. You're not just bidding against an idea."
Keno also said he is making a point to have some items in the auction that probably will to sell in the $100 to $200 range. Others could go up to $300,000 or $400,000, although, he added, "I'd rather not guess the top."
He said that he hopes the auction will attract younger collectors, people in their early 40s or late 30s. "From young collectors, great collectors grow."
A Weekend In Stamford Some of the more noteworthy items to be auctioned include a collection of paintings by 19th-century painter William Matthew Prior, among them his only known self-portrait, dated 1825; a rare nest of eight Nantucket baskets by R. Folger, circa 1880; a mahogany drop-leaf table attributed to John Goddard, circa 1765; a Childe Hassam watercolor of a New York scene in winter; a pair of silver Paul Revere butter boats, circa 1763; a late-18th-century wooden Iroquois ladle carved with an otter shape; an 1825 needlework sampler; several pencil sketches by Joseph Trumbull; a small painted box attributed to Jacob Weber (1772-1865); a number of 20th-century works painted by Ralph Eugene Cahoon Jr.; and a variety of spatterware, scrimshaw and redware.
Keno said one reason he chose Stamford is that there are many antique shops nearby, including "great group shops," and he hopes that people might "make a weekend of it and enjoy the area." He said he hopes to eventually hold a few auctions a year, but for now he is focused on the May event.
"The best thing is finding things, going on visits. I'm in heaven when I'm looking at objects."
The search for "something great" is "innate, almost, that's in all of us," Keno said. "It starts when we were little, finding seashells at the beach. . . . That's an innate thing - to collect and love objects. You can get so much joy and pleasure out of them."
The inaugural sale of Keno Auctions will be May 1 and 2 at the Stamford Marriott, 243 Tresser Boulevard, Stamford, with previews April 29 and 30. Consignments will be accepted through March 12. For information, write Keno Auctions at 127 E. 69th St., New York, N.Y., 10021. Call 212-734-2381, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or go to www.kenoauctions.com.Copyright © 2015, Los Angeles Times