Antique metal door plates become a hot target for thieves in Bolton Hill

June 22, 1992|By Mark Bomster | Mark Bomster,Staff Writer

Call it "The Case of the Missing Door Plates."

The scene of the crime: Victorian town houses along Eutaw Place, Park Avenue and other streets in Bolton Hill.

The victims: homeowners who awaken to find that a thief with a screwdriver had made off with the antique metal plates that adorned their oaken doors.

Bolton Hill residents say that 20 homes have had the valuable fixtures stolen in the past week or so, the most recent thefts taking place late Thursday or early Friday.

And city police warn that there is little they can do, short of catching the thieves in the act, or recovering the items from antique dealers or pawn shop owners.

"I've been a cop 22 years -- this is the first time I've heard of them taking door plates," said Lt. James Henderson, day-shift commander at the police department's Central District, where at least two such thefts were reported last week alone.

It doesn't surprise him, however.

"People take anything they can possibly carry away and try to get a profit on," he said.

That's little consolation for Bolton Hill residents, who say it could cost hundreds of dollars to replace the stolen antique fixtures.

"We work very hard to maintain and bring this whole neighborhood up," said J. Ripley Miller, a computer consultant whose door plate was stolen sometime before Friday morning. "It's the petty larcenies that just nag on you and nag on you."

Unfortunately, there is a lively illicit market for vintage architectural items, said John Raccuglia, owner of John's Antiques in Fells Point.

Thieves have been known to take cast-iron urns, iron lawn furniture, even the stained glass and marble mantelpieces from unoccupied houses, he said.

Reputable antique dealers and pawn shops refuse to buy such stolen items, said Mr. Raccuglia. But not everyone is so squeamish, and the thieves know it, he said.

"There are people offering stuff to us all the time that we know is not right," he said. "There's a lot of this sort of theft, because this stuff is stealable and easy to sell."

The latest target for thieves is the object known as an escutcheon, the decorative metal plate that surrounds the doorknob and keyhole on a door.

In many of Bolton Hill's Victorian-era homes, these plates are cast brass or bronze and come in pairs, one for each of the double-entry, beveled-glass front doors.

The door plates on at least half a dozen homes on Mr. Miller's block have been stolen, and neighbors tell of more thefts on other blocks.

The thefts are a costly nuisance for the tightly knit community, where neighbors look out for each other and swap gossip.

In Mr. Miller's case, the thieves took one of the two bronze escutcheons on his front doors, a "dummy" that matched the remaining plate, which frames the actual doorknob.

The missing door plate probably weighs about 1 pound and has an intricate floral design, along with the detailed image of a girl's face. If the thief can find a dealer willing to buy it, it will probably fetch only $10 to $20, said Mr. Raccuglia of John's Antiques. Matched sets are far more valuable.

Mr. Miller said he could probably buy an unmatched replacement for $35 or $40, or pay $250 for a less-distinctive modern reproduction.

But he estimated that it would cost $500 to cast a bronze replica of the one stolen from the front of his four-story sandstone town house, which was built in 1886.

Mr. Miller warns that such thefts can hurt the atmosphere of a neighborhood where residents are committed to urban living. This month alone he has had a lawn mower, lawn chairs, plants and pieces of copper stolen from his home.

"It's disheartening," said Mr. Miller, who is co-chairman of the Eutaw Improvement Association. "It's not making me move out of the city, but it does discourage people."

Gary Mills, a self-employed contractor who is Mr. Miller's neighbor, also had his door plate stolen some time between Thursday night and Friday morning.

The incident left him angry but has not soured him on the neighborhood.

"I think a lot of people get the impression that people who buy these big houses think they're above other people," said Mr. Mills. "They're ordinary people. They get great pleasure out of fixing these houses."

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