Burglars who steal silverware are again hard at work in the suburbs, spurred by the soaring price of silver, which has risen 233 percent in the past year.
Burglars who carefully pick out solid silverware, precious jewels and oriental rugs from the more ordinary varieties have struck at the rate of six times a week recently all over Fairfax County. The McLean, West Springfield, Burke and Mount Vernon areas all have been hit repeatedly.
"The activity is primarily in Northern Virginia," said Charles Monroe chief of the FBI's Alexandria office, which last week established a task force to investigate the silver theivery, Monroe said. Agents already have counted 15 cases involving thefts of more than $50,0000 worth of valuables, he said.
Police elsewhere in the Washington area have noted no similar recent wave of silver burglaries, although a police spokesman in Montgomery County said burglaries there are up 20 percent this year and "it's pretty common for burglars to sort out the silver from silver plate."
The victims of the silver thefts, many of whom bought their silverware when it was much cheaper or received it as a wedding present, are finding it unbelievably expensive to replace.
"Two hundred and forty dollars for a single fork? Three hundred and twenty dollars for a gravy spoon?" exclaimed one man after a day of calling around to see how much it will cost to replace his pattern following a burglary.
The price of silver has risen from $6 an ounce early this year to $20.05 recorded yesterday.
Silver teaspoons may now cost "between $70 and $100 apiece, depending on the pattern," according to Walter Frankland, executive vice president of the Silver Users' Association, an industrial trade group. Some patterns may cost even more, retailers say. Silver is so costly that manufacturers are beginning to find their market on the wane, Frankland said.
Fairfax County police spokesman Warren Carmichael said the stolen silverware is likely to be melted down and made into ingots or fenced out of the area.
"Most striking about the recent group [of Fairfax burglaries] is the greater geographical diversity," Carmichael said, noting that a series of silver burglaries last winter was concentrated in McLean.
"They've fanned out through Great Falls, Oakton and into Reston and Chantilly," Carmichael added.
Losses from the Fairfax homes have ranged from $1,000 to more than $20,000, with the average loss between $2,000 and $4,000, according to Carmichael.
The largest reported theft in the area occurred when $10,000 worth of silver-jewels and oriental rugs disappeared in under 35 minutes from a home in Seminary Ridge area of Alexandria on Dec. 1.
"It was very professional," said the victimized householder, who asked that neither her name nor her address be disclosed. "They moved all my furniture very nicely and they did no damage at all . . . It was beautiful."
Carmichael said that while police have no suspects or conclusive evidence that the thefts are related, "certainly some of the same people are involved in some of them."
The silver thieves generally enter a home by jimmying a door or a window -- often with such professional finesse that the owners may not notice the loss of the precious items until they next go to use them.
One place the silver thieves have not hit is Prince George's County. "We don't have that kind of stuff to steal out in Seat Pleasant," a county police spokesman quoted a detective there was saying.