Urban Treasure Hunter

March 15, 1995|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,Sun Staff Writer

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."

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