OMAHA -- In a world where shabby is chic and vintage is charming, thieves are stripping 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 around the country say the "shabby chic" design movement and the advent of online marketplaces such as
"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.
And 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," 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 Registry of Historic Sites for fear they may be providing road maps for thieves.
"It has 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," Brown said. "That's like saying, 'Here, come strip me.' "
Not only are thefts from historic homes difficult to prevent, they are difficult to prosecute. Tracking the stolen items is difficult and is often given low priority by law enforcement.
"Police are a whole lot more interested in murders and drug problems," Brown said.
The demand for such items is clear: A search of "vintage" in the home decor category of eBay results in a list of more than 4,000 items.
"Part of . . . the impetus is the shabby chic thing that's going on when it comes to design," said Christy Davis, an assistant director at the Kansas State Historical Society.
Shabby chic decorating is "the hot thing to do. Those kinds of design movements, I think, have created a market, or maybe it's vice versa," Davis said.