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."

Local retailers say that they are careful not to traffic in stolen merchandise. Nancy Moore is manager of Architectural Antiques on Washington Avenue, one of the oldest local stores specializing in historic decorations. She estimates that her store buys items "off the street" a couple of times a week. Each time, she says, the store records the seller's driver's license number, name, and address. "I won't buy if I get a bad feeling about it," she explains. "People who are in this business--we like this stuff, so we don't want to buy from people who are ripping it off."

To some city officials, trusting antique dealers' gut feelings is not good enough. Last June, Tenth Ward City Council member Lisa McDonald co-authored an amendment to the city's regulations governing secondhand dealers. McDonald says architectural elements have been stolen from her house and those of her neighbors: "I've had whole houses stripped in the Wedge [neighborhood]. As someone who had to go searching for her windows, I was concerned about that." McDonald's ordinance required dealers to file a report with police every time they buy a stained-glass or leaded-glass item; for some retailers, the measure also upped the license fees payable to the city.

McDonald says she hasn't heard much criticism of the provisions. But Derek Laumbach, general manager of Antiques Minnesota, says the law was one of the reasons he moved his antique mall out of the city last summer. "They say that this is going to help make sure that we are not dealing in stolen goods," Laumbach scoffs. "But it was arbitrary. There are certain categories: gold, sterling, stained-glass windows, art pieces. But there was no dollar amount--a $5,000 inkwell doesn't have to be reported, but a $50 sterling ring does."

Jim Skuldt

Third Precinct inspector Johnson says police would like the regulations to go even further. Pawnshops, he notes, must take pictures of people bringing in items, and record names and addresses on a computer system accessible to police. A similar system for antiques, he speculates, could allow police to identify habitual thieves: "If there are a lot of entries for a certain person, then perhaps we have to check into where they're getting that merchandise from."

 

McDonald's ordinance, and the computerized records system Johnson envisions, might help police nab the occasional buffet burglar. But it's unlikely that either would have hindered the Twin Cities', and perhaps the nation's, most famous antique thief: Stephen Jay Blumberg.

The St. Paul native is best known for the "Blumberg collection," as grimacing librarians sometimes call it--a 19-ton assortment of more than 20,000 rare books and manuscripts, many of them stolen from American and Canadian libraries and museums. It was discovered in the spring of 1990, when FBI agents, acting on an informant's tip, raided Blumberg's three-story, 17-room house in Ottumwa, Iowa. Along with thousands of books categorized by subject, the house held tens of thousands of antique doorknobs and a large collection of stained-glass windows.

Following the raid, investigators discovered that Blumberg also rented an apartment near 16th Street and Hennepin Avenue in Minneapolis and was storing items in another house near Franklin and Park avenues. From the two locations, police removed 300 stained-glass windows as well as brass doorknobs, musical instruments, lighting fixtures, fireplace mantels, jewelry, and coins. The items were brought downtown and set up for viewing so that theft victims could identify their property. Very few were ever claimed.

Blumberg's father told reporters at the time that many of the rare items were taken from St. Paul and Minneapolis houses that were being razed to make room for freeway construction in the 1960s and '70s. His son, the elder Blumberg says now, couldn't stand the thought of architectural features ground to bits by the bulldozers. A St. Paul antiques dealer--who first met Blumberg when he was a child lugging antique discoveries behind him on his bike--was quoted in the Star Tribune as saying that "that interstate had something to do with the way he is today."

Eventually, prosecutors in U.S. District Court in Des Moines charged Blumberg with transportation and possession of stolen property. He pleaded not guilty by reason of insanity. An accomplice testified at Blumberg's January 1991 trial that the two of them had traveled the nation for years, selling antiques by day and stealing books at night. Another partner in crime called Blumberg "Spider-Man" because of the way he was able to wiggle through air vents, scale roofs, pick locks, get past burglar alarms, and lift himself through tiny openings.

Defense lawyers, on the other hand, pointed out that Blumberg--who receives $72,000 annually from a trust set up by his grandfather--had never sold any of the books in his collection, and that many of the architectural items he stored were covered with dust. One attorney told the court that Blumberg "lived almost as a street person...who was absorbed by Victorian history, who lived in a time warp, a secret world."

In the seven years since the bust, Blumberg's tale has mesmerized antique fanatics around the nation. Nearly everyone interviewed for this story brought up Blumberg--often with a remarkable degree of sympathy. Lock specialist Paholke even called him a "very good friend."

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