The photo, as you can see for yourself, shows two adolescent boys, twins actually, stocking caps pulled over matching mops of blond hair on what is obviously a chilly day as they stand perched on the frame rails of an open trailer in front of a rather dilapidated old car. The photo was taken 45 years ago. The boys’ father had just paid $300 to buy the car.
The boys are the Keno brothers, Leigh and Leslie, or maybe it’s Leslie and Leigh; after all, they are identical twins. Their father, Ron, was a high school teacher but he and the boys’ mother, Norma, also were experts in folk art and country furniture. Ron collected and restored old cars. Norma often kept the boys home from school on Fridays to attend antique shows with her in upstate New York.
The boys followed in and then sped beyond their parents’ footsteps, and tire tracks. They went from digging up, collecting, buying and selling antique stoneware bottles to becoming recognized by the American television-viewing public as Leigh and Leslie Keno, the effusive, even passionate appraisers telling people on Antiques Roadshow that their gorgeous 17th Century table or Philadelphia-made chairs would be worth so much more had they not stripped and refinished them.
But the Keno brothers were car guys even before they were studying the sources of the wood and the maker of the particular dovetails used to produce a specific piece of furniture.
“Our father was a car collector,” Leslie Keno explained. “We spent our summers under a car with him.”
Leigh interrupts his brother — the twins seem to interrupt each other quite often — one starting a sentence, the other adding a few words, the other jumping back in and the other finishing the thought. But it’s not that they’re trying to one-up each other, it’s just that they’re so passionate about the subject, whether that subject is antique furniture, classic cars, or the Keno family.
Leslie remembers when they were 12 and they went to a friend of their father’s and there was a car parked partway into the back of an old school bus to protect it — at least to some extent — from the upstate New York weather.
“We climbed on the car and dusted after it at age 12,” he said, adding that they saw the same car again some 40 years later in the exquisite showroom at Sotheby’s in New York City, where the car, now meticulously restored, sold at auction in 2013 for more than $1.2 million.
And before Leslie can get a word in, Leigh points out proudly that Leslie was the curator for Sotheby’s part of that sale, which was a joint-effort with RM Auctions.
Classic car auctions are very much on the Kenos’ minds these days. Just as the annual auction week was unfolding in Arizona earlier this month — with Barrett-Jackson, Bonhams, Gooding & Company, RM, Russo and Steele, and Silver each staging sales — the Kenos announced they were launching their own classic car auction company. They said Ken Sterne would be a third partner with them in the new business, to be known as Keno Brothers, and that their sales would be conducted through Proxibid, a company that specializes in online auctions of high-value items, including real estate, fine art and antiques.
Within hours of their announcement, the Kenos were on their way to Arizona, where ClassicCars.com sat with them, Sterne, and Ryan Downs, president and chief executive, and Joe Petsick, vice president of business development and founding partner of Proxibid, to hear the details of the new enterprise.
The Kenos met Sterne early last year in Paris. They were sitting just a row apart at the Artcurial auction held during Retromobile and realized they were all there to bid on the same car, a 1969 Maserati Ghibli Spyder with very special provenance, including a close history to Valentino Balboni, for four decades Maserati’s chief test and development driver.
One of Sterne’s roles in the new partnership is to be the voice of the buyer. He was early into buying Japanese cars with investment potential, helped build a major classic and exotic car collection and sales showroom in Dubai, and has been active in buying and selling entire major collections.
To put the Proxibid/Keno Brothers relationship in perspective for the classic car community, Sterne compared it with the relationship of automaker and coachbuilder.
“They’re like Ferrari,” he said. “We’re like Scaglietti.”
“We’re putting our bodywork on their platform,” Leigh Keno added.
One hope, Petsick said, is that other classic car auction houses will decide to use Proxibid for the online portion of their sales.
“This will be a safe place to bid,” Leigh Keno said.
Regarding that bidding, the first Keno Brothers/Proxibid auction is to be held sometime this fall, everyone agreed.
As for the Keno Brothers’ auction format, several templates are being considered: as many as 20-30 cars, with them all in the same room, and with people in the room bidding as well as bids coming online; sort of a half-scale event with perhaps as few as five cars; and an online-only sale.
The plan is to try all of those formats. Each would include a live auctioneer announcing bids as they are received.
Sterne noted that the cars available, at least for a full-scale auction, will include those affordable to car guys who don’t have upwards of a million dollars to spend.
“We want to give the guy at home access to everything the guy in the auction showroom has,” Sterne said.
Actually, what Proxibid and the Keno Brothers hope to provide is even more than might be available in a traditional auction bidding showroom.
One plan is to do to extensive video on the vehicles being offered for sale. Those videos will show not only the good things about a vehicle, but any flaws as well, Petsick said. In addition to showing details the cars, the plan includes having experts talk on camera about each vehicle and its history.
Leslie said that in selling an Alexander Calder sculpture, he had a tiny paint chip from the piece scientifically analyzed to verify the artwork’s authenticity. He said the same thing can be done with classic cars to assure buyers of their provenance.
“We feel an obligation to bring this into the car world,” he said of the forensics being used in the marketing of art and antique furniture.
Plans also call for showing previous transaction prices for various vehicles as the data is accumulated.
“Too much information is better than not enough,” Leslie Keno said.
“Transparency, full transparency to the potential buyer is one of the tenants of our value system,” Leigh added.
“Honest, integrity, trust…” Leigh said.
“… the best customer service,” Leslie said.
“The next generation of buyers lives on the Internet,” said Proxbid’s Downs. “They’ve educated themselves through the Internet. It’s how they get their information. It’s how they engage.”
Proxibid is home to some $2 billion in annual sales of high-value goods. Its news release announcing the new venture pointed out that it has developed what it calls the Proxibid Marketplace for safe and secure transactions. Petsick noted that many customers appreciate the anonymity provided through online auction buying.
As far as securing cars for their auctions, the Keno brothers pointed out their long history with classic cars and the relationships they have built within the classic car community from the days in their youth when they started going to Hershey each year with their father. They note their experience in vintage racing, as well as buying and selling their own cars — they still have the 1963 3.8-liter Jaguar XK-E they bought and restored when they were 15 years old, Leigh adding that he’s jealous that the car stays at Leslie’s house out in the country — and their years of being judges at such events as the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance.
And, Leslie said, “There are lots of cars.”
Speaking of cars, remember that $300 car the Kenos’ father bought back in 1970? Turns out it was a 1939 Alfa Romeo 6C2500 with a Sport Berlinetta by Touring, one of only 16 such cars produced. But even beyond the others, this Alfa had significant history.
A U.S. Army Air Force officer stationed in Italy brought the car home with him in 1946 and drove it until a connecting rod broke, after which the car was parked out in a field on the family farm. In 1967, the officer’s uncle bought the car and, planning its restoration, started to take is apart.
But that’s as far as he got, so in 1970 he put it up for sale. While helping Ron Keno load the car onto an open trailer, the uncle shared the story of how it had been a gift from Italian dictator Benito Mussolini to his mistress, Claretta Petacci. Keno eventually contacted a historian who knew the German military officer who had been Petacci’s chauffeur. The officer was able to verify the car’s history.
After owning the car for nearly a decade, Ron Keno sold it to another collector who later sold it to the Imperial Palace collection, where it underwent a cosmetic restoration and was displayed for some 20 years — the Imperial Palace collection included several cars that had been owned by dictators and other heads of state — before being sold again and finally undergoing a complete restoration in Italy, where Touring’s original drawings were used as a guide.
That restoration complete, the car won its class at Villa d’Este in 2007 and was judged best of show at Salon Prive in 2011.
On February 4, the car is being offered for sale by RM at its Paris auction. The pre-auction estimated value isn’t the $300 Ron Keno paid for the car, but a figure just a few dollars shy of $3 million.