The door at 831 N. Howard St. swings open to one of Baltimore's more charming salesrooms. But Friday, when I stopped by the place known as the Imperial Half Bushel, it was a dispiriting and depressing sight.
The 19th-century walnut and oak showcases were empty. Gone were the silver forks and spoons made by Baltimore silversmiths. The water pitchers, the cups, the napkin holders had disappeared. Sometime between Sept. 17 and Sept. 20, thieves looted $100,000 worth of silver from this little shop located on a stretch known as Antiques Row.
Fred and Nancy Duggan and their son, Patrick, opened their silver business in 1976. They operate an old-fashioned Baltimore shop, complete with marble steps and a brass rail and a set of louvered green shutters at the front door. They offered an inventory of estate silver — used and antique pieces — neatly displayed and well-polished in showcases you might encounter in an old museum or a great-aunt's dining room.
Patrick Duggan said that on Saturday, Sept. 17, he locked the front door and turned on the burglar alarm when he closed the shop for the weekend. When he went to reopen it the following Tuesday morning, the alarm did not sound momentarily, as it normally would. He walked in and saw that his showcases were virtually empty. The thieves had entered through a back window and cut the alarm telephone lines. When rifling through the showcases, they left the knives behind, apparently knowing the blades are not silver.
None of the antique showcases was smashed. Patrick Duggan keeps a detailed inventory, including photos, of what the burglars took. The Duggans carried only $5,000 in insurance.
The place was as much a museum as it was a retail business. The Duggans had assembled their inventory over the decades. And as precious metals escalated in value this year, the little Howard Street shop obviously became a target.
The Duggans stayed entrenched on Howard Street as other dealers closed their shops. They weathered other break-ins — like the time a thief heaved a parking meter pole through the front window. Another time, a hammer came through, then a paving block.
Even if I was not going to buy a silver liquor hip flask, the array of them at the Half Bushel was always fascinating. I often observed the children's christening cups, snuffboxes, tea balls, cigarette cases and needle cases. There were coin silver spoons from the 19th century.
I dropped by there for gifts that recipients unfailingly appreciated. Baltimoreans whose grandmothers had silver made by the city's own Samuel Kirk or Schofield always appreciate an extra dessert spoon. We are still lucky enough to have the Stieff Silver building near Remington. The Half Bushel was the place you went to pick up authentic Stieff salad forks. A wedding gift? How about asparagus or bacon servers, tomato servers, ice tongs or an oyster fork?
"Think of all that Maryland silver that's been melted down," lamented Nancy Duggan. "I want to use what happened to us as a warning that with silver prices being as high as they are, people need to be careful."
Nancy Duggan told me that her Imperial Half Bushel will remain. "I am planning to retire and turn the business over to my sons," she said. "But we'll make it through, maybe with a different line of antiques."
In the meantime, the Baltimore Police Department continues to investigate. The shop's website gives the details of what was stolen.