As one door closes ... Antique: Baltimore man is convinced his large key is an ancient, perhaps mystical object. He will not rest until science and history back him up.

March 12, 1998|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

El Greco's mystery key is rare and curious and worth beaucoup bucks.

He's convinced of this, even though he's not sure exactly what it is he paid $20 for last Christmas at a Fells Point antique store. And until El Greco is satisfied that every source of information has been unlocked, he's not going to part with his prize.

"Maybe the key to an old bank, maybe a castle," says 66-year-old Theodoros Roditis, an Eastern Avenue sewing machine repairman who composes music under the name El Greco.

Eyes twinkling, the Greek emigre takes his speculation even beyond the castle door.

"Maybe for the king's wife," he suggests. "Sometimes when king go to battle, he close her up so she no make love while he's gone."

Roditis nurtures dozens of such maybes about his find: a heavy, worn and rusted hunk of metal measuring a little more than a foot in length.

It's handle is adorned with curving snakes, which Roditis notes is the ancient symbol of physicians. The shaft is engraved with lettering -- "Hebrew?" he wonders. On a medallion near the center, there appears to be a face.

"With something like this, you no look for one expert," says the habitue of yard sales and junk shops. "It's better to go to three or four to find the right information."

After checking reference books at the Pratt Library, Roditis takes his find to Gary Vikan, director of the Walters Art Gallery. Vikan has written a dissertation on keys, and the Walters has a respected collection that includes ceremonial keys from Pope Leo the XIII.

"It's the kind of key that the Romans invented, but it doesn't look Roman or Greek or Western," says Vikan, turning the key every which way. "We have medieval keys that are very precise, and this is about as simple as a key could be."

Vikan guesses the key might be as old as 500 years, but he doubts it. He hands it back to Roditis, compliments the stylish buttons the older man has sewn onto the breast of his jacket, and wishes him luck.

The next day, photos are taken of the key and mailed to the Lock Museum in Terryville, Conn. -- a facility that boasts an Egyptian pin-tumbler lock said to be 4,000 years old -- and several of its more prominent members.

Says Thomas Hennessy, a lock designer and founder of the museum: "Try Ronnie Deitch in Washington." So Roditis does.

"It looks old, but beauty is more important than age," Deitch tells Roditis.

"It's not typical of any key I know, and there's a hell of a lot of fakes out there. Try Bert Spilker. He's obsessed, really psychotic about this business -- owns more rare keys than anybody I know."

On a foul March morning, Roditis leaves his storefront home near Eastern Avenue and Ann Street with a flamboyant scarf around his neck, a green felt hat adorned with buttons and brooches and a plastic case in which he carries the mystery key.

Into rain and sleet, he travels north to a Philadelphia suburb to meet 56-year-old Bert Spilker -- physician, scientist, president of a pharmaceutical research company and self-proclaimed No. 1 U.S. authority on keys.

On the ride up, Roditis talks excitedly about what he'll do with the key once its history and value are known.

"Better to give to museum here for a little bit of money than sell to stranger out of town for a lot of money," he says. "Good for Baltimore if tourists come to see key. Good for everybody."

At the Blue Bell, Pa., offices of the IBRD-Rostrum drug research company Roditis meets Bert Spilker, a man who says he can't always remember the names of his friends but never forgets an interesting key.

The owner of several thousand keys, Spilker began his pursuit in 1970 after a visit to the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. An early find was a 17th-century key to the cannon room of a walled city in Holland. His oldest key dates to the third century B.C., and he's got plenty from the Middle Ages, too. The most valuable in his collection -- worth more than $10,000 -- were fashioned by 18th century artisans.

Spilker greets Roditis with a handshake, a magnifying glass and a dental scraper.

"The only word for this is strange -- the design isn't even based on real keys, but someone's fantasy of a key," says Spilker, poking the key for signs of wear. "It's a crudely cast-iron key in poor condition.

"The main question is not where it's from, but if its real."

Roditis stands by silently, head cocked, lips pursed. When Spilker takes off his glasses to put a magnifying glass to his eye, Roditis takes a larger one from his own pocket and hands it to him.

Spilker continues: "Since it was found in Baltimore, my feeling is it was made in America somewhere between 1910 and 1930 and got buried in someone's back yard or under water.

"Maybe," he suggests, "it was a paperweight."

Roditis frowns, unconvinced. He drops his serious facade when Spilker misjudges the face in the center for a child riding in an airplane.

The key expert then announces he's "99 percent certain" that the key is at best a curiosity. Still, Roditis brightens when the doctor indulges in speculation.

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