2015 top stories: No. 2 – Keno Brothers launch their own classic car auction company

Keno Brothers' auction preview was part art museum, part car show | Renato Zacchia photos for Keno Brothers
Keno Brothers’ auction preview was part art museum, part car show | Renato Zacchia photos for Keno Brothers

It was huge news back in mid-January, just as everyone was gearing up for the big Arizona classic car auction week, when word came from New York City that the Keno twins, Leigh and Leslie, widely known for their entertaining evaluations of vintage furniture on television’s Antiques Roadshow, were launching their own collector car auction house.

While best known for their roles on the Public Broadcasting Service’s weekly art and antiques program, the Kenos were very familiar to the car-collecting community. They helped their father, Ron, as he collected and restored cars. They had their own collections. They participated in vintage racing. They were judges at major concours d’elegance. Very quietly, they recruited others to join them in a fund that bought classic cars as an investment.

Leslie (left) and Leigh Keno bring art-world experience to selling classic cars
Leslie (left) and Leigh Keno bring art-world experience to selling classic cars

But launching their own auction house was taking their personal passions public, and also figured to introduce the classic car hobby to a significant segment of the celebrity brothers’ fan base.

What the Kenos said they really wanted to do was to bring some of the transparency, the documented research and artifact technology, and the customer experience from the world of antiques to the classic car auction audience.

In September, Keno Brothers Fine Automobile Auctions announced that its inaugural event would be called Rolling Sculpture, would be held in mid-November, and in a site in the trendy Soho section of New York City often used for fashion shows.

Even before the auction, bidders and consignors were offered concierge services regarding travel, lodging, dining and entertainment. An art museum-like preview featured cars on pedestals and a symposium on car collecting. Instead of traditional printed catalogs, bidders were given tablet computers with  detailed vehicle information — including what cars had sold for had they been to auction before and, if not, what comparable cars had brought at recent sales.

At the sale, 20 of 40 vehicles sold for a combined $8.3 million, with an Aston Martin DB5, Lamborghini Miura and Bizzarrini Strada each bringing more than $950,000. While a 50-percent sell-through might seem very low, Leign Keno told Classic Car News that history shows that it is not an unusual figure for a first-time sale, which often draws people who are more curious about the new auction house than they are interested in actually bidding on something.

Just a few days before the sale, the Kenos announced they had signed a multi-year agreement to stage an annual auction in conjunction with The Elegance at Hershey, an event that features a hill climb competition as well as a concours d’elegance.

The Kenos are famous for not messing with patina
The Kenos are famous for preserving patina

Leigh Keno said changes will be made before the first hammer falls at Hershey.

“We learned a number of things,” he said of the fledgling auction company. “We would have loved a 90 percent sell rate, but we know what areas we need to improve and what areas are strengths and we’ll strengthen those even more.

Among the lessons learned are the need for what he called “fresh merchandise.” He explained that means not only cars that haven’t been to auction recently, but cars that haven’t been parked at classic car dealerships.

In addition, he said, pre-auction estimated values — and consignor’s reserve prices — have to be more realistic, in some cases reduced by half.

He said he sees things in the classic car world that remind him very much of art and antiques. For example, the difference between the real and perceived value of vehicles such as the 300SL Gullwing Mercedes-Benz.

“They went up so quickly a lot of them came to the market,” Keno said. He compared the phenomenon with what happened to the value of Nakashima furniture, where a large, major collection ended up flooding and temporarily destroying the market.

“It’s just like real estate,” he added. “It takes a while for owners to adjust to the fact that it’s leveled off. “

It only makes sense that the same thing happens with collector cars, “for a certain period for a certain car, and then it may go back up again, but every area has a period of leveling off.”

Yet another change, he said, will be in the conduct of the sale. At New York, high production-quality videos were shown for nearly every car and “it just slowed down the pace,” he said.

Keno said he and his brother also learned much about the online bidding experience and want to make it easier to use.

The brothers have a long history with cars | Keno family archives
The brothers have a long history with cars | Keno family archives

On the other hand, he said, “There were a lot of things we were happy about. We had a great experience and this has been a great way for us to bring all the things we believe in to the (classic car) marketplace.

“This is more than a business venture,” he added. “It’s an approach that Leslie and I have always taken and that we’re applying to the (classic car) auction business.”

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