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Maltese Falcon disappears in a real-life mystery

A thief takes a replica of the movie prop from a San Francisco eatery where Sam Spade, and his creator, dined.

February 14, 2007|John M. Glionna | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Call in the coppers, get Sam Spade on the case: The Maltese Falcon's gone again.

In a missing-bird caper reminiscent of the one that perplexed Dashiell Hammett's fictional sleuth, the owner of a landmark restaurant here is offering 25 Gs ($25,000) for a replica of the famed Maltese Falcon swiped from a locked display case over the weekend.

John Konstin, the owner of John's Grill, a nearly 100-year-old restaurant with a museum dedicated to the crime novelist, said the purloined plaster statuette and 15 rare books by and about Hammett that were also stolen are emotionally priceless.

"The statue had historical significance to this restaurant and to the city," said Konstin, as he sat in a dining room framed by movie stills and Hammett mementos. "People came from all over the world to see that bird. And we want it back."

Hammett used to frequent John's -- and the falcon has been housed since 1995 in a wooden display case just upstairs from booth 21, where, as the story goes, he wrote parts of the 1930 novel that introduced readers to Spade, the womanizing, sly-talking gumshoe.

"He came here a lot, he drank a lot, hung out a lot," Konstin said of Hammett, who died in 1961. "Sam Spade ate here as well. One scene was set at the restaurant."

In "The Maltese Falcon," a missing statuette that has been stolen again and again over the centuries leads Spade on a trail of murder, intrigue and a dame named Brigid O'Shaughnessy.

During the shoot of the 1941 film version starring Humphrey Bogart and directed by John Huston, plastic replicas were made after Bogart complained about the weight of the two original lead statues, 50 pounds apiece. One of the plastic models is at the Library of Congress. Other copies, made of plaster, are available at gift stores, for about $60 apiece.

In December 1994, Konstin bid $150,000 at an auction in New York for one of the two original statues, which sold for $398,500 -- then one of the highest prices paid for a movie prop.

The following year, Elisha Cook Jr., at the time the last surviving actor in the film, gave Konstin an autographed Maltese Falcon replica.

In the last decade, the statue has been ogled by tour groups as well as college and high school literature classes. The restaurant was for years the headquarters of the Dashiell Hammett Society of San Francisco.

Konstin noticed Saturday that the statuette and books were missing.

"I thought it was a prank, that the person who took them would just put them back," he said. "I'm angry. There are so many other things they could have stolen, like vintage wines, instead of vintage books and that statue. They would have enjoyed them more."

He called the police Monday. And he called Julie Rivett, Hammett's granddaughter, a regular at the eatery, which opened in 1908.

"The whole thing is just a rotten shame," said Rivett, who lives in Orange County. "Those pieces were placed there in honor of "The Maltese Falcon" and my grandfather. A theft of this sort makes me wish we had a sleuth of Sam Spade's caliber to track down the crooks."

But Spade isn't available. So Konstin called private investigator Jack Immendorf.

"I was the next best thing," said Immendorf, who had partnered with Konstin in the unsuccessful effort to buy the falcon original.

The veteran detective says he already has some leads.

"Whoever took the falcon knew exactly what they were doing," he said. "They went for the statue and everything else in that case. They didn't go in for the silverware or cash register. That leads me to believe that someone wanted that bird bad."

Authorities are looking at a related case, but would not say whether the other theft involved a Hammett icon or Hollywood memorabilia, Immendorf said.

"The plot thickens; this is a real mystery," he added.

In the book, the falcon was a jewel-encrusted gold statuette, covered in black enamel to hide its value.

"It was enormously expensive, worth a king's ransom," Immendorf said. "In the last scene of the film, Bogart holds a copycat version of the sought-after statuette in his arms and says, 'The stuff that dreams are made of.' That's how John felt about his statue."

Konstin agreed. "People like to own prized artifacts," he said of his plaster falcon. "I look at it like a Picasso painting."

Hammett's novel was published on Valentine's Day.

"Maybe that has something to do with the thief's timing," Konstin said. "Maybe they didn't do their homework and thought they got one of the original statues."

Since the theft, Konstin has heard from Hammett fans who have offered him replacement copies of the stolen books and bird. Some have offered to sit by their computers and keep an eye on EBay in case the thief tries to auction off the statue.

Konstin said that in recent years the original falcons, both privately owned, have been briefly on display in his restaurant. "We had them under armed guard," he said. "After hours, one went to a bank vault, the other to the safe at a local police station.

"I've learned my lesson. If I get my bird back, I'm going buy a new case and a brand new lock."

*

john.glionna@latimes.com

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