Stolen heritage

Scavenging: Police must crack down on thefts of architectural antiques from city houses.

February 20, 2002

AS LONG as Tiarieas I. Henderson owned the three-story Victorian at Fremont and Lafayette avenues, it was a rare showpiece in a rapidly deteriorating neighborhood. Its elegant handrail and elaborate wrought-iron balcony were particularly attractive.

But last September, the city bought it. In just a few days, vandals moved in and started their destructive orgy. The architectural antiques -- from the wrought-iron accents to fireplace mantelpieces -- were among the first to be stolen. Metal pipes were next, then anything else of marketable value.

Today, the house is a total wreck. The windows are broken, the front door wide open.

The theft of architectural antiques, a sizable problem in Baltimore, isn't limited to vacant houses, either. Brazen thieves also steal iron window boxes, bronze rails, newel posts and light fixtures from occupied houses in broad daylight.

Just last month, police raided three Fells Point antique stores, seizing 30 pieces of stained glass reported stolen from houses and churches on the city's east side.

Vacant and occupied commercial buildings also get hit in this ring. And over the past few years, sections of the massive cast-iron fence surrounding Loudon Park Cemetery have started to disappear.

Under city law, antique and pawn shop dealers are required to report all their purchases to police. The three Fells Point stores suspected of selling stolen items had done just that. But there are too many reports for the police to monitor.

"We do what we can," a detective said of the "overwhelming" number of transaction sheets antique stores and pawn shops file. "We do everything by hand -- sorting, checking, filing," he added.

Before the reporting law was enacted several years ago, antique dealers and police warned that the documenting requirement would do little good because of the sheer volume of business that the more than 350 licensed dealers conduct.

Indeed, unless a thief is caught in the act, police are reluctant to get involved. They often take action only if the original owner of stolen property sees it in a store and alerts them.

But if fencing is to be curtailed, more is needed than catching the unscrupulous dealers, though that is critical to drying up the market. Police should also move against the middlemen and scavengers.

Spring, usually a busy season for thieves, approaches. It would also be a good time for a sting operation that would send a clear message that police won't tolerate the thievery of architectural artifacts.

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