Wednesday, June 07, 2006

Gingerbread thefts mystery

New Orleans, Louisiana, U.S.A. - EXACTLY where the pieces and parts of New Orleans homes are ending up, and what prices they're bringing, remains largely a mystery, although there is no shortage of suspicion among residents. Some of that suspicion has been directed at local dealers such as The Bank, a Felicity Street shop that essentially recycles the sorts of items that are being stolen. Co-owner Kelly Wilkerson, who runs the business her father started with her brother Sean, doesn't take kindly to the raised eyebrows. Some in the Holy Cross Neighborhood Association accused The Bank of inviting the thefts when it put up signs advertising its desire to buy architectural pieces after the flood. But Wilkerson said The Bank does not deal in stolen goods.

"We've been made the scapegoat," Wilkerson said, taking a cigarette break in the middle of a typically harried day last week. "The Holy Cross neighborhood is basically blaming us, saying our signs advertised to crackheads. But we're not buying from crackheads." On the wall above her in her cluttered office hangs a clipboard full of photocopies of driver's licenses, which she requires from the people who sell to her, along with the address where they got their merchandise and a description of what she bought. Wilkerson said she also has a policy of waiting at least a month to strip wooden items of paint before restoring them, in case anyone calls to claim the piece. She said she will not buy from anyone in what her father always called the "buggy brigade": walk-ups bearing merchandise in shopping carts, themselves stolen, of course. She won't take anything freshly painted, either.

Wilkerson said she's testified several times in theft cases and has offered to testify in another one involving a man she helped apprehend. He brought her a set of doors from Mid-City. He gave her a fictitious name and said he had gotten them from his mother's house, a story vouched for by a woman claiming to be his mother. "She was in on it, too," Wilkerson said. The real owner of the doors came in later with the police, and Wilkerson returned them at no charge. Then she and the owner cut a deal for her shop to strip them for her.

In another case just before the storm, a man brought her a set of seven doors, some of which seemed to match a description she received earlier that day regarding some stolen doors. She put the guy off -- offering him a high price and telling him to wait -- and then went in the back to call the police, she said. "It's all very exciting, you know, when the cops show up," she said. "It makes me nuts when people steal, especially now, when there's plenty of legitimate jobs out there."

Just then the phone rang: a woman from Holy Cross looking for a set of pocket doors stolen from her home. Wilkerson agreed to visit the woman's house. At 426 Delery St., Deborah Ortego wearily cleaned the former home of her recently deceased mother. The house next door had its decorative gingerbread work stolen. On the porch of the house on the other side, a case of silver generic cans of water, probably dropped there by National Guard troops, sat untouched, an eerie artifact of post-Katrina suffering still there nine months later. Ortego's pocket doors had disappeared sometime in the past week. Earlier, somebody broke in and stole the claw feet off the tub.

"You'd have to be here 24 hours a day to stop it," Ortego said. "And there's all these people trying to buy houses on the cheap down here, trying to muscle you out, so you don't know if they're involved, since they'll be renovating." After Wilkerson measured the door and recorded the paint color of the surrounding walls for a possible match later, she promised to alert Ortego if similar doors came her way. "So what happens now if you find them? How do I get them back?" Ortego said. "If we're satisfied the doors are yours and the paint matches, you just get a truck and come down and pick them up," Wilkerson told her.

So if The Bank, one of the few architectural salvage operations back at full steam after the storm, isn't fencing the loot, who is?

The Wilkersons scratch their heads on that one. Sean Wilkerson said he had a recent conversation with another dealer, Angelo Ricca of Ricca's in Mid-City, on the same topic. Neither man believed the thieves had tried to sell much of it to them, at least not in the quantities both of them knew have been stolen. "He was baffled," Wilkerson said. "He turned to me and said, 'Where is this stuff going?' " Ricca couldn't be reached for comment. Wilkerson said he thinks most of the stuff is being trucked out of town. New Orleans' architecture might be unique, but as with the rest of its culture, there's a substantial demand for its artifacts nationwide. "We get people all the time buying doors in bulk and taking them to Texas or wherever," he said. "There's got be some out-of-towners setting them up a little warehouse somewhere."

[Taken from an article Tuesday, June 06, 2006 By Brian Thevenot Staff writer. See the complete piece here The Times-Picayune]

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