PROVIDENCE, R.I. — Police are searching to the north, south, east and west for the leader of "The Yellow Station Wagon Ring" and other thieves who have been climbing New England homes and barns to steal antique weather vanes that command high prices as folk art.
"If you have an authentic antique weather vane, it's like keeping loose money on the roof. Sometime somebody's going to come along and try to steal it," said Guy Kimball, a New Hampshire state trooper and the recognized expert on weather-vane thefts.
Most people are unaware of the value that the metal barnyard animals, ships and Indian chiefs have to collectors. But consider this: A 19th-Century copper figure of Chief Mashamoquet of the Nipmuck Indians sold in May for a record $85,000. It was purchased in 1905 for $10.
Some Dealers Blamed
That weather vane was sold to a private collector at a legitimate auction, but police say some unscrupulous antique dealers are aiding the thieves by shutting their eyes to the source of the vanes they buy.
"You have legitimate dealers, and you have dealers who will make a buck," Kimball said. "If there wasn't a place to dispose of them, they wouldn't be stolen."
He and other authorities are confident that the vast majority of thefts are the work of a group of about 10 New York-based men unofficially dubbed "The Yellow Station Wagon Ring." Several men have been arrested at different times while driving the car, which was seen at the site of some of the thefts.
Their apparent victims include Kimball's lieutenant--the development that got him started as a weather-vane sleuth, as well as police Capt. Jesse Carpenter of Cumberland, R.I., and the city of Hallowell, Me.
In April, 1980, two New York men seen driving a dirty yellow station wagon apparently tried to steal the "circus-type" horse weather vane that had been on Carpenter's family barn since at least 1886.
The men were arrested but released that night after police found no arrest warrants and no evidence to charge them. The next morning, Carpenter found climbing equipment near the barn, but the men had already fled.
On May 22, 1981, a different car with New York plates was spotted near the farm. This time, the weather vane was stolen.
Carpenter has made finding the weather vane something of a quest, assembling bursting binders of information, running down leads and always hoping it will turn up.
"My father's not a man to show emotion. But the day he found it gone, it hurt him quite deeply," Carpenter said. "He's relied on it all his life as a farmer. That weather vane guided him how to spray his apple trees."
The case involving the town of Hallowell was more celebrated because it involved the theft of a horse-drawn fire cart vane from atop its fire station during a rainy night in 1983.
The four-foot copper weather vane, valued at about $35,000, was recovered for $1,000 ransom when the thieves realized that it was too well-known to fence, Fire Chief Michael Grant said.
"When we got it back it sat in the city vault for about a year," Grant said. "It wasn't doing anybody any good there, so now it's back up on the fire station roof with an alarm system."
One man linked to the theft was arrested, but he jumped bail and remains free. One other suspect has been identified, but no arrests have been made.
Thieves Pass the Word
Catching the thieves sometimes does more harm than good. Imprisoned weather-vane thieves have been known to teach youthful offenders how to identify vanes worth stealing.
From last fall through the spring, about 75 weather vane thefts were reported in both Maine and Massachusetts, Kimball said. Rhode Island, Connecticut, Vermont and New Hampshire have not been hit as hard, "but they're still losing them," he said, and the recovery rate is poor.