- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 23, 2004

OMAHA, Neb. (AP) — In a world where shabby is chic and vintage is charming, thieves are stripping historic old farmsteads and rural houses of furnishings and fixtures to supply a growing black market.

The ransacking of architectural details and other items has been going on for a long time, in big cities and the countryside alike.

But preservationists across the country say the Shabby Chic design movement and the advent of online marketplaces such as EBay appear to have made the problem worse.

“Before, people were stealing things like mantels, but they didn’t have anywhere to sell,” said Elizabeth Brown, who runs the historic-preservation division of the Alabama Historical Commission.

Historic sites in rural areas seem to be the hardest hit, simply because it is easier to get away with the crime in out-of-the-way places where no one is around.

Old farmsteads, houses, churches and schools have been ransacked of doorknobs, moldings, mantelpieces, chests of drawers — even the markers that designate the sites as historic. Barns have been stripped of their planks to supply the burgeoning market in “reclaimed” lumber, often used to make fine wood floors.

Greg Miller, a historian at the Nebraska State Historical Society, said his family left a car in the driveway, a few lights on in the farmhouse and the radio going at their weekend getaway to put off thieves. It didn’t work.

At least four times in the past decade, thieves broke in and took bureaus, other furniture, even a set of figurines of three little pigs playing instruments.

“The television was in there, but they didn’t care about that, they didn’t care about the radio, they didn’t care about the toaster,” Mr. Miller said. “They had something specific in mind when they went in.”

Across the country, most state preservation offices have stopped disclosing the locations of the buildings that they are restoring or that they list on the National Register of Historic Places for fear they may be providing road maps for thieves.

“It is always been a problem and we’ve gotten to the point that we’re very cautious about telling people, even when we’re marketing a house, where houses are that we know are empty,” Miss Brown said. “That’s like saying, ‘Here, come strip me.’”

Thefts from historic homes are hard to prosecute. Tracking the stolen items is difficult and often is given low priority by law enforcement.

“Police are a whole lot more interested in murders and drug problems,” Miss Brown said.

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