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Urban Treasure Hunter


Dennis Milecki crosses the East Baltimore ball field looking like a chopper pilot scrambling for a search-and-rescue mission.

He's wearing a blue-green flight suit with lots of zippers, aviator shades, soft brown boots and a tiny gold loop in his left ear. He's approaching his 45th birthday with the boyish good looks of an aging test pilot. He's a super-energized 5-foot-7. He has blondish hair and the small, finely drawn features of a minor gunman in a 1930s movie.

"I could be a good-looking evil guy in 'Homicide,' " Mr. Milecki allows.

He's carrying a 19th-century French mantel clock. A reporter tags along, very gingerly lugging a 100th anniversary plate from the B&O; railroad's plush Capital Limited.

Mr. Milecki runs his own earthbound seek-and-recover missions. He's an urban prospector, an antique picker, a photo finder, a record peddler, a treasure hunter.

He scours the mean streets of Baltimore for his treasures. He mines the neighborhoods taxi drivers ignore, trashmen neglect and police suspect.

He posts handbills on walls and utility poles. He canvasses door-to-door. He's the good humor man come to improve your fortunes.

He buys the records you remember from your youth, your grandmother's silver platter, your great-aunt's deathbed, your uncle's World War II photos.

He loves the stuff he buys, but he's not sentimental. His business is turnover. He bought the clock and the plate yesterday afternoon. He's taking them to the Fells Point Antique Mart. He hopes they're gone tomorrow. His thrill is in the chase, the hunt, finding a rhythm and blues classic like the Marlettes on Baltimore's Howfum Records in some dark, wet, grimy basement.

The Marlettes, five forgotten black women, made his rep among record collectors. Howfum made just two 45 rpm records and the Marlettes disc is the single most valuable of the a cappella "girl group" records.

"I was like world-famous in the vintage record world," he says. He got calls from all over the country. He finally sold the Marlettes for $2,000 to a dealer in Philly.

"Records are the stuff I go out for and specialize in," Mr. Milecki says. "I recently bought the collection of Fat Daddy, the disc jockey from the '60s."

"I have this technique I use," he explains. "I just walk up to people on the street and I give them my card and say: 'Excuse me, I don't know you, but I'm looking for old records. I do anything to get them. You might have some collecting dust.' "

You eat lunch with him and he hands out cards like a blackjack dealer -- to the waitress and half the customers and the cook if he can get in the kitchen. People mostly take them. Everybody's got something in their attic they hope is worth enough for a weekend in Las Vegas.

One day a guy named Al Harmon took his card.

"He said 'You know, buddy, I got records you would not believe. I collected them from this disc jockey. I used to know his mother. I used to mow her lawn,' " Mr. Milecki says.

Fat Daddy, the late Paul L. Johnson, was Baltimore's pre-pre-hip-hop scat man of rhythm and blues. He brought records to his momma every Saturday in his Motown limo.

"He was like on the board of Motown Records," Mr. Milecki says. "He was an executive. He would bring his records every Saturday like clockwork and this guy would always be mowing the lawn."

Roomful of records

Mr. Harmon liked music. The family liked him. So after Fat Daddy's mother died, Mr. Harmon got a roomful of records.

"Three-quarters of the collection was jazz, and he doesn't like jazz," Mr. Milecki says. "He sold them to me incredibly cheap. At the [record] show I just went to, no one could believe I had these records. They were mint!"

He made $8,000.

Mr. Harmon didn't begrudge Mr. Milecki his profits.

"The only reason I sold him records was because I like him," Mr. Harmon says. "Nobody else in the world could have gotten 'em."

Now they go out together on Mr. Milecki's seek-and-recover missions. They went down to southern Maryland the other day and brought back an Amos Milburn album from the late '50s with "Chickenshack Boogie" and other R&B; classics.

"Lists $300 to $600," Mr. Milecki says. "It's real desirable. Ask anybody [who] knows rhythm and blues and their ears'll perk up."

He's got a whole network of finders: friends, relatives, junk dealers.

"They go on trash day and they pick trash for me and they put stuff in wagons with horses," he says. "I've got feelers out and they're all looking and grabbing what they can.

"This town, Baltimore, is rich in finds for treasure hunting. I find stuff I can't believe what it is.

"One time I found an etui," he says. "You know what an etui is? A little sewing case. This was a pre-Civil War etui with all the needles and stuff in it and it had an Oriental motif.

"It turned out to be worth close to a thousand dollars," he says. "I didn't know what it was. I didn't get a thousand dollars for it. I sold it for $75."

He learned what it was worth after he sold it. "I said, 'OK, you bought it. It's yours. I know it's something good. Just tell me what it is. That's all I need to know.' "

The guy told him and he found the price in a Sotheby's catalog.

Mr. Milecki pronounces etui "et-tooey." He's got an authentic East Baltimore urban accent. He grew up in Canton and Fells Point. He lives on artists' row on East Baltimore Street. He graduated from the Maryland Institute, College of Art about a dozen years ago. His apartment is a small museum of recovered artifacts.

In one corner, there's a small Nichren Shoshu Buddhist shrine, where Mr. Milecki chants every day. He's been chanting for 20 years. Occasionally he chants for help in treasure hunts. But he makes out better when he chants for someone else.

"When I chant for other people," he says, "I'm like a magnet for the things I want."

He hates the 9-to-5 life.

"I've been hunting down things like this since I was a kid," he says. "I lived down on Aliceanna Street when there were stables there and billy goats in the middle of the street."

The late Frank Deickman had his famous a-rabber stables on Aliceanna Street.

"They would take the horse and wagons out and they would go find junk and antiques in people's trash. I would have loved to have done that.

"I started out with comic books," he says. "When I was in elementary school, I'd go to all the stores down in Fells Point. Here I do the same thing today. Some of the same people are in business and they can't believe that I'm doing the same thing.

"And now they're buying stuff from me and you can't find an antique shop in Fells Point that doesn't have something I sold them, the dealers."

Writing a guidebook

He's writing a guidebook. He's already got his title: "The Closely Guarded Secrets of Finding Antiques." He figures about 150 pages. He's written about 25 so far.

Some of Mr. Milecki's closely guarded secrets: "When I go to **TC person's house, I never shave. I wear poor clothes. Because I don't want to look like I have money. I'm over-polite. I always compliment people: You have great taste. I always tell 'em I pay top dollar, even though we all pay the same.

"If I go to 20 houses and knock on the door, and I usually do more than 200 in a day, I'll get into 12," he says. "I get into more than 50 percent."

Even Girl Scouts don't do much better selling cookies door-to-door.

At the Fells Point Antique Mart opposite the Broadway Market, Avi Barchichat, the proprietor, gives Mr. Milecki's parlor clock pride of place in his cluttered shop.

"Dennis is a hustler," says Mr. Barchichat, who has sold everything from toy monkeys to antique beds that Mr. Milecki has found. "He works hard. He likes to party. He loves life.

"And, oh my God, he's good at what he calls 'hunting treasure,' " he says. "He's a little bit pushy. He always wants his stuff to be the centerpiece in the shops."

The clock sells in a couple of days for $65. The B&O; plate is still down there waiting for somebody with an eager $80.

Mr. Milecki bounds out the door of Mr. Barchichat's shop. He's on his way to Ellicott City to look at records by James Brown and Sam Cooke and Charlie Parker with strings and B.B. King when he was 50 pounds lighter and 50 years younger.

"The excitement of finding something is the whole thing behind treasure hunting," he says. "You never know what you're going to find. It's the excitement of what's behind Door No. 1, 2, or 3. You never know . . . until you open them."

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