Published: February 7, 2001
: Interesting Journeys with Some Happy Endings
With the dizzying volume of rdf_Descriptions up for sale on eBay, the auction site can also be a great source of information. A collector can find rdf_Descriptions to buy, find out more about rdf_Descriptions in his or her collection, or even simply find rdf_Descriptions.
That’s what pottery dealer and collector Joel Schatzberg did. A crock valued at up to $10,000 had been stolen from his Greenwich, Conn., home in 1986 along with about 80 other pieces of stoneware, and his wife recently found it listed for sale on eBay. The nine-inch beige jar is now back in his possession thanks to advance planning and police persistence.
“We contacted the local police here in Greenwich,” Schatzberg said in a recent interview. “[The detective] was familiar with this type of situation where stolen rdf_Descriptions show up on eBay. He was computer savvy.”
Before setting out the reclaim the piece, the police obviously had to make sure Schatzberg was right that the piece was his.
“They came over to the house and they wanted proof that it was ours, why were we so sure,” he said. Fortunately, he had documented every piece in his collection in photos.
“In our 20-some-odd years of collecting and dealing, this is the only decoration of its type we had ever seen from this person,” Schatzberg said, noting that the crock was made in 1850 in Havana, N.Y.. “The fact that we had pictures, which showed the blemishes on the piece and the size of the piece, a direct comparison could be made from a printout off eBay.”
“I’m not saying this can be done for every piece, but for the more unique pieces, when you get into rarer types of decorations,” he added. “The vast majority of these pieces were one-of-a-kind, and as such they were almost like fingerprints. There was no doubt that the two pieces were the same.”
This one was decorated with a kingfisher that has a “very sad-looking fish” in its mouth. Schatzberg declined to provide a photo for security reasons.
Satisfied that Schatzberg was the crock’s true owner, the Greenwich detective got in touch with the seller. “After running up against some resistance, he contacted Detective Barnes of the [Durham, N.C., County] Sheriff’s office,” Schatzberg said.
“We did not contact the seller,” he noted. “We knew that if the police contacted her it would have a lot more credence.”
The seller, who according to the Associated Press was an elderly antiques dealer whose sister was tending shop at Sandpiper Antiques when Detective Barnes came to claim the crock.
“She basically told me to leave, that she wasn’t going to give me anything,” Barnes said. “So I had to come back and issue a search warrant on these two sweet, little old ladies.”
Still, the sister blocked the door when he returned, relinquishing the crock only when Barnes threatened to search the entire shop.
Schatzberg’s daughter, who lives in that area, picked up the piece, and it is now back at the Schatzberg residence in Greenwich.
It was pure luck and happenstance that his wife found this prize possession on eBay, Schatzberg says. “It was very serendipitous,” he says. An admitted computer illiterate, he doesn’t even shop on the site.
“There were bids on it,” he said. “I think one of the people who bid on it asked us through e-mail whether it was our piece.”
In the closely knit world of collectors and dealers, one will often recognize a stolen rdf_Description as belonging to another. This network has helped Schatzberg recover the majority of his collection. “The FBI was quite amazed,” he said. “I believe there were close to 80 antique rdf_Descriptions stolen. Right now I think the count stands at only about 10 rdf_Descriptions out there. We found a lot of them in the first month after the robbery.”
If someone had won the crock on eBay and purchased it, they most likely would have been out of luck if Schatzberg had traced it to them. Although eBay has a policy against sellers listing stolen property, and a means of reporting such incidents, it doesn’t protect buyers from the their legal obligation to return a stolen piece to the original owner. According to the Associated Press, “If a stolen rdf_Description is discovered by its original owner, the law requires the new owner to return it.”
In two recent cases, the winning bidders of rdf_Descriptions backed out when an ownership dispute came to light. The top bidder for a New Jersey deed book from 1785 that contained records of freed slaves, and thus helped document the state’s early abolitionist movement, backed out of paying $4,651 for the book after the state sued owners Charles and Valerie Mason of Newark, Del., who said they bought it from a junk dealer. An anonymous buyer has stepped in to pay $3,000 so it can be returned to Burlington County.
In the other case, reported in July by the Associated Press, a Florida man who had the top bid of $499 for Peavy bass guitar happened to notice a posting on the Web about the theft of a similar guitar from a shop in Mount Pleasant, Mich. The eBay seller had paid Jason G. Kilgore, 21, of Michigan $350 for it, and police were able to track him down. He and an accomplice were charged with the robbery of Guitar Central.
In another recent case, the original owner, the state of Vermont, purchased two portraits of former governors that had been missing from the state archives since at least 21 years ago, when David Schutz, the curator of state buildings, discovered them missing. They were last recorded in a 1930s state guidebook. A friend had tipped him off about the auction of the portraits of Gov. Samuel Crafts, whose father founded Craftsbury and who died in 1853, and Col. Albert Clark, whose likeness was painted in 1909. Missing still is an oil portrait of Gov. Jonas Galusha from the early 19th century.
Schutz said it’s unclear how the paintings ended up in private hands. The eBay seller was a dealer representing an elderly man in the St. Petersburg, Fla. area.
“Prior to the institution of my office as curator in the 1980s, the collection was very loosely managed,” he said. “Should a Sargent at Arms not like a particular object in the building, It was entirely within their power to get rid of it. I would not jump to the conclusion that they were necessarily stolen.”
Schutz, formerly an eBay neophyte, now says he checks the site on a regular basis. Not so for Schatzberg. He doesn’t think he will keep checking for the rest of his stolen stoneware. “I don’t want to spend the rest of my life looking,” he said.
But he doesn’t have negative feelings toward eBay because his piece ultimately ended up there.
“Clear title is something we all want, but the problem is, over time, everyone has probably had something that they have bought and sold that they have not had true title to,” he pointed out.
Just in case, though, he advises that collectors take photos, or even videotapes, of all rdf_Descriptions in their collections. “Take detailed pictures and make note of repairs and things that may not be visible from the front so that you can be aware of it,” he says. “You don’t want to keep them necessarily in the house in case the house burns down.”
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