In a case that has spurred police to ask for changes in a city law, five dealers from Baltimore's historic Antique Row won a victory in court yesterday when prosecutors dropped charges that they illegally bought stolen heirlooms.
Dressed in stylish suits and peeved at being called out of their shops on a busy rainy day, the antiques merchants huddled together in Eastside District Court as Assistant State's Attorney Peter Saar requested that the charges be thrown out.
"These were frivolous charges. It was foolish to put us through this," Robert A. Wittman of Wittman's Oriental Gallery said after the hearing. "We're not junk shops. We sell fine antiques and are well-respected business people."
Each of the five dealers from the row of Howard Street shops was charged with theft, primarily because they did not report purchases of antiques -- which turned out to be recently stolen -- to city police. Among the stolen valuables were a 19th-century porcelain white elephant statue, two Delft mantel vases and a Japanese Satsuma tea set.
Some of the items were reportedly worth more than $1,000, even though the antiques dealers bought them from a suspected thief for $200 or less, police said.
The merchants say they didn't know the items were stolen and argued that they shouldn't be required to send police reports on purchases of items from sellers off the street.
Mr. Saar agreed, saying that a city statute requiring pawnshops to report purchases to police does not apply to antiques dealers, who hold a different license from pawnshop brokers.
The decision to drop the charges miffed police officials, who say they were trying to curb rampant theft and fencing in Baltimore.
"Baltimore has a huge larceny problem, and we do have a problem with stolen items turning up in antique shops," said city police Col. Ronald L. Daniel. "A lot of businesses faithfully turn in the transaction forms. It's not that much of a burden."
He added, "We're going to have to work with the state's attorney's office and if there's a problem with the law, we're going to have to get it corrected so we can have some prosecutable cases."
Police said they have successfully prosecuted city antiques dealers in the past and were puzzled why the charges were thrown out yesterday. They expressed concern that antiques dealers are no longer regulated in their purchases, meaning that unscrupulous dealers can trade freely in stolen goods.
Detectives depend on the transaction sheets to monitor secondhand purchases and to ensure that merchants don't encourage thieves to steal by supplying a black market. By law, pawnshop dealers must report the name of the person from whom they buy an item, as well as the seller's address and description.
Police then check the item to make sure it isn't stolen. If it is, they confiscate it from the dealer, who loses the price paid.
"The police must be having a problem with fencing, and have wrongly assumed that antique dealers are one of the conduits," said Richard W. Reische, an attorney representing Phil Dubey of Dubey's Arts and Antiques at 807 N. Howard St.
Mr. Reische said a local Antique Dealers' Association will be meeting with city police detectives to discuss possible changes in the law and ways to curb theft.
"We want to work with the police. We don't object to a law, but we want a law that works," he said, noting that the dealers intend to fill out the transaction sheets even though they are no longer legally required to do so.
In April, Mr. Dubey bought one of the Delft mantel vases and the Satsuma tea set, which turned out to have been recently stolen. He found out they were "hot" when Susie Swann, one of the rightful owners of the items, showed up at his shop and showed him a list of items stolen from her mother's house near Guilford.
Mr. Dubey said he turned over the vase, helped Ms. Swann find other stolen items on Antique Row and called the police for her.
"I did everything I could do to help the police. I couldn't believe it when they said I was being charged with a crime," Mr. Dubey said. He had faced a charge of felony theft -- carrying a penalty of up to 15 years in jail -- before prosecutors dropped the case.
Along with Mr. Wittman and Mr. Dubey, the three other dealers who had charges against them dismissed were Frank Rutkowski of the Connoisseur's Connection, William Robey of Heritage Antiques and Allan T. Williams of Thayne's Antiques.
Ms. Swann said yesterday that she hopes antiques dealers will be required to fill out the transaction sheets.
"I'm extremely concerned, and if it's necessary, I'd like to see the law changed," she said. "If what they did here was legitimate, then let's find a way to make it not legitimate."