THIEF BREAKS $5,000 VASE Suspect, arrested at Walters Art Gallery, says vase belonged to him.


City police held a 56-year-old man at the Central police lockup today after he allegedly attempted to steal a 19th-century vase valued at $5,000 to $10,000 from the Walters Art Gallery. The vase was smashed during the arrest.

The man, described by police as an outpatient at the Walter P. Carter Mental Health and Rehabilitation Center, was being held in lieu of $3,500 bail on a charge of theft.

Police said he walked to the fourth floor of the museum at 600 N. Charles St. about 3 p.m. yesterday and stuffed the Sevres vase under his clothing. The vase, an example of fine French porcelain, measured 10 inches in diameter and 10 inches in height.

He carried the vase to the first floor of the museum at the Centre Street entrance, where a guard stopped him. The man dropped the vase on the floor and it smashed.

The man told police that the vase had been stolen from his home. Museum officials said the vase had been purchased by William Walters in 1867 to decorate his own home rather than to serve as part of his art collection.

Museum director Robert P. Bergman said, "We review our security procedures at the Walters virtually every day. The only way to have perfect security, though, is to lock up all of the art and not show it to anybody. The minute you share the art with the public, you put it at risk."

Bergman said the vase had been displayed without a plastic case for about eight years.

Museum staff members gathered "every last scrap" of the shattered porcelain, Bergman said. He said conservators hoped to restore the vase.

Police identified the suspect as Nathaniel Thomas of the 200 block of N. Fulton Ave.

Officials at the Walter P. Carter Center refused any comment on Thomas.

In the past few years, Baltimore's two major museums have suffered thefts. In 1988, a Walters security guard stole 145 pieces of Asian art from the museum. All were recovered within a week of the theft's discovery but not before the thief had melted down several ancient gold objects.

Thirty-four Old Masters prints were discovered stolen from the Baltimore Museum of Art in 1984; more than half have been recovered since. In 1989, thieves stole 16 watches from the BMA's American Decorative Arts Wing. The property was recovered within a month.

Despite these thefts, the two museums hold excellent security ratings for insurance because of their security systems and the professionalism of their staffs.

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