Sherlock Homes

Minneapolis's Victorian gems have endured boom times, bad times, and some godawful weather. Now they face their greatest danger yet: government ownership and a new brand of antique "collectors."

But metal prices have been falling--at one local salvage yard, the copper housing pipe that three years ago sold for more than one dollar a pound now commands 40 or 50 cents. "Out of necessity, thieves have become more sophisticated," Tucker says. "You can work all day to get metal. But it doesn't take long, if you have the right tools, to get a stained-glass window. Wrap it in a bedsheet, bring it down to [a store], and there you are--$100."

Often, says the MCDA's Palenius, the burglars seem to be even more organized than that. "It's my understanding that they come up in contractor-type cars, and so the neighbors think it's something that's supposed to happen. I've had houses where thieves have been in and out with stained-glass windows in 20 minutes. Obviously they know what they're doing."

They also know their loot is hard to track. Very few people know how to trace, say, a stolen doorknob back to the property it came from; the only technique that comes close was developed by a Chicago police officer who is now a legend among doorknob lovers and burglary detectives across the nation. Arthur Paholke, who now lives Hot Springs, Arkansas, specializes in identifying lock-pickers and their tools from the microscopic marks they leave. He teaches seminars on the technique to police departments across the nation and at the FBI academy in Virginia.

Through his years examining doors and locks, Paholke has become an expert on doorknobs. His private collection fills a space 40 feet long and four feet high. He is a member of the Doorknob Collectors of America, which holds conventions and publishes a newsletter for its membership across the U.S.

In Chicago Paholke sometimes used his technique to track down architectural crimes. He recalls one incident: "A church in a poorer neighborhood--some rascals got the idea that these stained-glass windows could bring them monetary gain. The tool marks in the wood of the window sill and the mortise lock allowed us to make an ID and convict them. We've made ID on painted surfaces, cut window screens, wire cutters that cut telephone wire, as long as they maintain the microscopic stria"--tiny lines that can be used as a tool fingerprint.

The problem with architectural theft, says Paholke, is that most people can't tell one doorknob, banister, or mantelpiece from another. "With an auto, you have a VIN number. Same with firearms--serial numbers. But it's a relatively simple chore for Mickey the Mope to remove a doorknob and plate and transport it within the confines of a city."

John Strong, an investigator with the FBI's interstate theft unit in Washington, D.C., concurs: Thieves who specialize in old houses, he says, "don't need a fence. They can basically sell these items, which are not entered into theft computers or [given] serial numbers, on the legitimate market without a go-between. There are a lot of items that look the same." Strong says the FBI has started a database to catalog unique art items worth more than $2,000. But, he notes, "a lot of local departments aren't aware of that."

"We are aware of the cannibalizing of old houses," Strong adds. "We'd be more than happy to address it, but a lot of it hasn't been brought to our attention. Each particular theft is not a huge theft--tops are maybe thousands or tens of thousands of dollars--and so they're often handled by a burglary division of local departments just like, say, a lawn mower that's been stolen."

The other factor working in favor of architectural thieves, notes Paholke, is that few people--politicians, police, residents--seem to care when buildings are stripped in a bad neighborhood. Typically, he says, the crimes are not discovered until an area takes an upscale turn and new buyers pick up dilapidated houses. "The thievery is done at the cost of the new owner. The [perpetrators] could care less other than the fact that copper is going at 60 cents a pound or that the antique stores give money for this crap."

 

The case of the missing mantelpiece was not Keith Miller's first investigation. In July 1990 Healy Block residents told him that a fireplace mantel had disappeared from one of the houses on the block; a police report had been filed, but there had been no follow-up.

On August 5 Miller, on a routine jaunt through local antique stores, discovered the mantel at Cobblestone Antiques, then located on Third Avenue South in Minneapolis. He called police, who perused store records and discovered that over the previous year, Cobblestone had purchased nearly 20 windows and a few mantels from the same seller. The man returned a month later with another stained-glass window; store owners tried to keep him around until police arrived, but he got suspicious and fled.

Miller says shoppers needn't fear that everything they buy from local antique stores is stolen: Most of the merchandise, he notes, is shipped over from England, and much of the rest comes from legal salvaging operations. But that doesn't mean thieves don't sell to the stores: "[Stolen items] will usually show up in a week or so, if they're going to show up," Miller says. "So I tell people: File a police report, then hit the stores."

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