TV star appraiser Leigh Keno

TV star appraiser Leigh Keno to headline Savannah Antiques & Architecture Weekend

From Roadshow to Road Stroll

Story by Leslie T. Snadowsky

Leigh Keno is the omnipresent appraiser and American antiques expert on the Emmy-nominated PBS TV series Antiques Roadshow. He’s also the founder and president of Keno Auctions. With nearly 50 years of experience and expertise in the art and antiques world, he has helped build some of the top institutional and private collections of paintings, furniture and decorative arts in the world.

From March 7-9 Keno will be the guest of honor, co-host and keynote speaker of the Savannah Antiques & Architecture Weekend. Organized by the National Society of the Colonial Dames of America in the State of Georgia, this event supports the ongoing preservation of two of Savannah’s prominent historic houses, the Andrew Low House Museum and The Green-Meldrim House.

Keno has been to Savannah just once before, in 2003, when he appraised an 18th-century Irish tea table for an Antiques Roadshow episode. Now, more than two decades later, he said he’s looking forward to exploring some of Savannah’s hidden treasures while he’s in town. Keno gives LOCAL Life a preview of the upcoming cultivated and educational weekend and also shares exciting news about his most recent antiques venture.

Andrew Low House Museum
Andrew Low House Museum

[LOCAL Life] Leigh, you’ll soon be delivering the keynote address at the Savannah Antiques & Architecture Weekend and bringing your expertise in all things Americana to Savannah. When you think of Savannah, what kind of art do you think about, and do you think locals know about the city’s rich artistic history? [Leigh Keno] I have the sense that Savannah residents are well aware and proud of their history. Gen. James Oglethorpe laid out the city in 1733, and despite the two fires in 1796 and 1820, when Savannah lost many buildings, the city’s architecture is remarkably well preserved. Savannah seems to be this wonderful melting pot of many cultures coming together. They appreciate British culture, and that’s just one thing I love about Georgia decorative arts.

I do feel that there’s so much out there yet to be discovered. The few pieces of high-style furniture that have turned up are extravagant, refined and fully developed. The city’s cabinetmakers really had their shop practices down, and their work is really superior. I’ve also found that objects from Savannah and from Georgia have quite a bit of provenance attached to them. Georgia-made pieces are often found with documents that help trace their origin, sometimes back to the original owner and/or maker. I think that’s one great thing about Georgia’s material culture.

[LL] The weekend raises funds for two historic houses in Savannah – The Andrew Low House and The Green Meldrim House. Why do you think these residences are important to preserve? [LK] The Andrew Low House is one of the outstanding gems in Savannah. It fascinates me that the massive double front doors were probably inspired by the bronze ones at Rome’s Temple of Romulus and that the architect, John Norris, simulated the doors in wood rather than the original bronze. They’re so distinctive. And the house has a wealth of classical and early Victorian-era pieces.

The Green Meldrim House, also designed by Norris, is an architectural masterpiece of the American Gothic Revival style. And I understand that Gen. Sherman kept his personal headquarters there because he knew that the locals would never attack the place. They wouldn’t burn it down because the locals respected the house too much to destroy it. That story encapsulates my feeling that the people of Savannah have a special reverence for their history and architecture.

[LL] During the Weekend’s Antiques Road Stroll, what should savvy antiquarians be on the lookout for? [LK] Georgia’s potters produced some amazing ceramics in the 19th century in the form of earthenware and stoneware, some with an alkaline glaze. Among decorative arts, pottery is one of Georgia’s most researched areas. Georgia is known for having some great kilns, and many amazing pieces were made by free men of color. In recent years there’s been a palpable uptick of interest by collectors in Georgia ceramics, especially those made by free men of color. Having said this, I feel that there are so many pieces out there that are as yet undiscovered. What may appear to the uninitiated in an antiques shop as a plain brown jar could, in fact, turn out to be a very rare piece that can be attributed to a particular Georgia maker.

 [LL] With your work on Antiques Roadshow and your experience appraising and auctioning items, has there been a special piece of decorative art or furniture that was manufactured in this area that stands out in your mind? [LK] It was a rocking chair with vertical sausage-like turnings both above and below the seat rail. Made in the early 19th century in the Piedmont region of either Georgia or South Carolina, it was part of a rare group of turned-seating furniture. Recent work by Dale L. Couch, curator of decorative arts at the Georgia Museum of Art, has determined that chairs like this were made, possibly by and certainly for, a local populous with Franco-German associations. I truly think that there are more chairs like this out there that will be discovered. And that’s the kind of piece that could turn up almost anywhere, and I could almost bet that it would be misattributed. However, that old rocker with little sausage-turned spindles is a very important example of Southern craftsmanship.

[LL] Can you explain what the words “quality,” “rarity,” “condition” and “provenance” mean in the antique world? [LK] Those four factors can be used to judge or assess a piece of furniture. Quality: What are the materials, how well is it made? Rarity: How many are there out there, and how does it compare to related examples? Condition: How well has it survived, does it retain its original surface, or has it been refinished and repaired? Provenance is the documented history of a piece’s origin and ownership. Truly it’s about where it’s been since the day it was born. 

Provenance actually factors into a new venture I’m working on. I believe that AI technology is advanced enough to be able to supplement the art appraisal industry. My startup, Arttag, will merge patented neuromorphic AI technology with the field of appraising art and antiques. The technology will allow for appraisals to be more accurate and will ensure that an object is never separated from its provenance.

The Mercer-Williams House
The Mercer-Williams House, crafted by renowned New York architect John S. Norris, was originally commissioned for General Hugh W. Mercer, the great-grandfather of the famed songwriter Johnny Mercer. Tour the home during this year’s Savannah Antiques & Architecture Weekend.

[LL] In between hosting and delivering the keynote address, are you planning to be a tourist and sightsee a little bit? [LK] Definitely. I’d like to see the oldest house in downtown Savannah, The Herb House, built in 1733. It looks like a center-chimney house. The fact that this house has survived is so cool. I would love to see some of the underground tunnels too, some of which I understand have a darker history. There’s apparently one underneath The Pirates House that’s quite amazing. I love 18th- and 19th-century structures and appreciate a wide range of styles and periods. I’d also like to see the beautifully restored Davenport House because of its Federal architecture. Like millions before me, I’d like to visit Chippewa Square where the famous bench was in the movie “Forrest Gump.” I understand that it was a studio prop, but happily the park is still there.

Antiques Road Stroll 

TV star appraiser Leigh Keno

When: March 7-9

Where: Various locations, Savannah 

Details: SAAW is a three-day series of receptions, a luncheon, presentations and historic house tours benefitting Savannah’s historic preservation. Featured homes include the fabled Mercer-Williams House and 120 West Jones Street. Neighborhood antique shops will offer cocktails and other refreshments all to-go in a branded “stroller” cup. Learn more at

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