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Heirloom theft scandal hits Antique Row

THE BALTIMORE SUN

How much can you get for an ornate 19th-century porcelain white elephant statue on Baltimore's historic Antique Row?

A felony conviction and up to 15 years in a plain old-fashioned jail.

Six antique dealers on this quaint row of Howard Street shops have been charged with buying the elephant and other stolen goods in a recent city police crackdown that has angry merchants in an uproar, virtually rattling the ancient Chinese porcelain bowls on their shelves.

"They're calling us thieves. That's ridiculous. We've been here 30 years. We're not hock shops," said 75-year-old Allan T. Williams, owner of Thayne's Antiques at 823 N. Howard St. "They've called out the vice squad on us, and we're just antique dealers."

Mr. Williams is charged with felony theft for buying a large antique Delft mantel vase from a man who walked in off the street this spring. It turned out the vase was among numerous antiques stolen from a home on the edge of Guilford.

Police argue that dealers who buy stolen objects are as guilty as the thieves, because the dealers provide a market for stolen goods by failing to report secondhand purchases to detectives. By law, they are required to report such transactions to police.

The charges against the merchants have tarnished the gilded image of Antique Row, one of Baltimore's most picturesque business districts, with cast-iron street lamps and old-fashioned shop signs.

"There isn't a legitimate chain of ownership," said Susie Swann, who found several of her family's antiques on the row after they had been stolen recently. "It's not that the dealers are actually stealing things, but they are part of the problem, thereby encouraging others to steal and sell for quick cash."

Playing a hunch

Ms. Swann, a downtown businesswoman, went to Antique Row on April 21 on a hunch that some of the stolen items might turn up in the shops. She found several of her family's heirlooms, including the Delft mantel vase, that were taken from her 85-year-old mother's home.

She called the police and her daughter, Leigh Halstad, who is an assistant attorney general.

Between them, they found many of the family's antiques in the possession of Antique Row merchants, most notably the Worcester porcelain elephant statue. The elephant, circa 1850, has been a treasured piece in the family since the turn of the century, when it was bought by a globe-traveling relative from Boston.

"I can remember it from when I was a little girl," Ms. Halstad said. "It's not that we wanted just any elephant back. We wanted this one. It's important to have pieces of your family history around."

According to a police report, the elephant and a white porcelain cabbage-shaped bowl belonging to the Swann family were sold April 8 to the Connoisseur's Connection shop at 869 N. Howard St.

Man charged in sales

The alleged seller of the items was Charles Montgomery, 45, of Remington, who once did odd jobs for Ms. Swann's mother at her home in North Baltimore. He is charged with numerous counts of theft; police say they believe he pocketed several antiques while at the house. (Ms. Swann requested that her mother's name not be revealed for fear she could be further victimized.)

Frank Rutkowski, a proprietor of the Connoisseur's Connection, is charged in a court summons with felony theft and failure to submit daily transaction sheets of his secondhand purchases. He and the other merchants have a District Court hearing Friday.

Mr. Rutkowski refused to talk about the charges. A police report says his mother, who works at the shop with him, bought the elephant and bowl April 8.

She paid $175; the items are valued at $6,000, according to the police report.

The merchants accuse the police of inflating the value in an attempt to make them look like greedy profiteers. "It's nonsense. There's not an elephant in this world that's worth $6,000," said Mr. Williams of Thayne's Antiques.

Mr. Rutkowski's mother told police "she had no idea who [the seller] was because the store was too busy to get identification ++ from him," as she is required to do by law, the police report said.

Another merchant, Robert A. Wittman, owner of Wittman's Oriental Gallery at 825 N. Howard St., is charged with misdemeanor theft and failure to file a transaction sheet in the purchase of a shoe-shaped Chinese pewter makeup box that belonged to Ms. Swann's mother.

'This whole situation stinks'

"I usually never buy things off the street, but this seedy character came in and said he was hungry so I gave him $5 for this old Chinese mirror thing," Mr. Wittman said. "I was going to sell it for $8. The next thing I know, the police come in here like storm troopers.

"I specialize in fine Oriental art," he added. "I have a very good reputation. This whole situation stinks, and the police are wrong. These regulations apply to junk shops and not antique shops."

Police have not yet established a value for the makeup box.

Such secondhand purchases would have been legal, police say, if the dealers had reported them to the city police pawnshop unit. By law, merchants who buy property from sellers off the street must fill out a detailed transaction sheet that lists the seller's name, address and physical description.

Detectives use the transaction reporting sheets to locate stolen items. Dealers are required to hold newly purchased items for 18 days while police check the property against lists of stolen goods.

The rub is that if an item proves to be stolen, the merchant must turn it over to police -- and thereby forfeit whatever he or she paid for it. Police say that has made many merchants reluctant to turn in the transaction sheets.

"There are a few people over there who report faithfully to us. But a lot of them haven't been," said Detective Denise Johnson of the pawn shop unit. "Who's to say how many things haven't been reported to us?"

Dealers are reeling

The criminal charges have left the antique dealers reeling.

"They want to give me 15 years in jail," said an incredulous Phillip Dubey, 47, the owner of Dubey's Arts and Antiques at 807 N. Howard St. He is charged with felony theft in the purchase of a Delft mantel vase and a Japanese Satsuma tea set. He sold the tea set for $150.

Police claim Mr. Dubey didn't send in the transaction form. But in a recent interview, he swore "on a stack of Bibles" that he did send in the sheet and that it was lost either in the mail or by the police.

He gave a reporter a copy of a sheet, signed by Charles Montgomery on April 2 and showing that Mr. Montgomery was paid $150 for the tea set and vase.

"I had no idea they were stolen. He had 19th-century Japanese, which is fairly common. A lot of people have that," Mr. Dubey said. "If it had been 17th-century Dutch, I would have never touched it."

Ms. Swann says several family heirlooms are still missing. Among the items taken were English snuff boxes, a Peruvian silver stirrup and a Russian enamel serving spoon.

The thief did leave behind one of the most valuable items at her mother's house -- an antique Alaskan carved medicine man's rattle worth more than $10,000. "At least they didn't get that," she said.

That item and other valuables have been taken out of the house, she said.

Image problem

Regardless of what happens with the criminal charges, the 35 or so merchants on Antique Row are facing an image problem.

"It's the reputation of the row that's at stake," said Nancy Duggan, an owner of the Imperial Half Bushel at 831 N. Howard St., a shop specializing in silver antiques. The shop is noted by police to be one of the most scrupulous on the row, diligently reporting suspicious buyers and maintaining good transaction records.

But the recent criminal investigation isn't going to do the row any good.

"It's a big deal," Mrs. Duggan said. "If your reputation goes, your business won't be far behind."

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