The silver-plated Christofle knife-rests glitter on the dining room table at the 2015 DC Design House. Originally created in the 1920s by sculptor Édouard-Marcel Sandoz for the lavish first-class dining room of the SS Normandie ocean liner, the set of eight antique art deco animals can be yours for $2,000.
The knife-rests (yes, that used to be a thing) are part of the $55,000 dining room that designers Jeff Akseizer and Jamie Brown put together for the show house, a month-long showcase for top local interior decorators and designers. Their room includes a 1930s silver coffee set from Spain, hand-painted plates by Anna Weatherley (the same designer who did White House china for first lady Laura Bush), antique napkin rings and an oversize Annie Leibovitz photography book.
Most visitors come to the show house for inspiration and acquisition. The majority of the items can be purchased, with a portion of the proceeds benefiting the Children’s National Health System. But a handful of folks attend show houses, private home tours or real estate open houses for the five-finger discount: to steal something, usually items small enough to slip into a purse or a pocket.
Like, say, a rare antique knife-rest. Which would be a mistake, because Akseizer and Brown are prepared for would-be thieves.
The coffee set is stuck to the tray with museum putty, as are the tiny bread knives. The display cabinets are locked. And that camera in the corner? It runs 24/7 on a 30-day loop.
“It has software attached to it that can identify hot zones in the room,” Akseizer says. “So every time someone touches a specific zone, we can get a text image of the touch area to our phones and actually identify if there’s a problem when it occurs.” When someone started pawing the $2,250 Leibovitz book last month, he immediately got a text.
Like many designers, the duo own most of the items in the room. At their first show house, an expensive book disappeared. Since then, they’ve used a surveillance camera.
“Really good designers curate items into their spaces that we’re passionate about,” Akseizer says. “We want to bring them to the public to show what they can do. When you look at these spaces, they’re fantasies for many people.”
It’s natural to want to touch and examine beautiful objects, he says, although bad things can happen when people carelessly handle a $500 dinner plate. “They begin to lose consciousness, I think, of the fact that these are not their things.” Museum putty or a gentle warning from one of the docents “brings them back to reality.”
But a few can’t resist, and they decide to take.
In January, Sally Spaisman of Potomac, Md., was sentenced to one year in jail for stealing $82,000 worth of jewelry from a dozen houses for sale in Bethesda, Chevy Chase and Potomac. The 58-year-old wife and mother of two posed as a potential home buyer at high-end open houses.
Her crime spree came to an abrupt end after a woman touring a $2.2 million home in Chevy Chase saw Spaisman in the master bedroom, going through a jewelry box and tossing pieces into her purse.
The woman notified a real estate agent on site, who watched Spaisman make a beeline for the front door and speed away — but not before the agent got Spaisman’s license-plate number.
Police found $15,000 in stolen jewelry in the car, including a David Yurman silver bracelet and a black sapphire and diamond bracelet, WJLA reported.
Open houses are still an important selling tool, says Margot Wilson of Washington Fine Properties. But “we do advise clients to take precautions: Remove prescription drugs, jewelry, small electronics, and put away personal papers.”
The good news? Thefts at open houses are very rare. The most common targets, by far, are prescription drugs, followed by cash, jewelry and credit cards. But anything that can be slipped into a pocket or a bag — iPhones, wallets, silverware — is vulnerable.
Some brazen thieves walk out of open houses wearing designer clothes, shoes, scarves and purses. (One owner lost two $1,500 designer handbags.) Another problem: personal information that can be used for identity theft. Deeds, tax returns and bank statements should be under lock and key.
“I tell my sellers, ‘Don’t keep $1,000 in your closet drawer,’ ” says Mark McFadden, who routinely sells multimillion-dollar homes. “Ninety percent of
homeowners keep valuables such as jewelry, cash and credit cards in their master bedroom closet.” Another dumb place? Freezers. It used to be a clever, unexpected place to hide money and jewels, he says, but “now everybody knows.”
McFadden has only once been hit by a group of thieves targeting open houses; they took jewelry and prescription drugs. Now he tries to have at least two agents on duty and keeps a close eye on people with oversize handbags or backpacks going through the rooms. “I make sure we’re all around them,” he says. “It’s their privilege, not their right, to come into someone’s personal residence.”
A couple more pro tips: Would-be thieves often travel in pairs — one engages the agent while the other wanders through the house. And don’t leave spare keys or garage door openers by the entrance: Bad guys grab them and come back when the house is empty.
Sarah Wessel is one of two dozen designers at this year’s show house, an 8,869-square-foot farmhouse in McLean, Va., on the market for $4.9 million. During the month-long run, which ends May 10, more than 7,000 people will walk through the rooms.
Wessel designed the breakfast room, a charming corner she filled with a 19th-century wooden farm table and chairs, art, and a display of tiny porcelain farm animals tied together with almost invisible fishing line.
“I’ve had something taken from every show house I’ve done,” she says. “The first show house I did, I was naive. I had a lot of little small stuff and it all walked.” She decorated a dressing room with antique perfume bottles and other knickknacks, all of which were taken during the course of the show. None of the items were that valuable — less than $100 apiece — but Wessel was surprised and hurt. “Some of the stuff was my grandmother’s, so it was priceless,” she says. “It was really upsetting.” None of her colleagues had warned her.
By her second show, she had learned her lesson and protected most of her things in the library by using fishing line to chain them together.
“Someone could easily cut it, but the idea is to make it a little more difficult,” she says. Still, a letter opener and a pen were stolen.
At her third show, everything in the sunroom was tied down except for an antique book, “Spring in the Capitol.” That disappeared, along with other volumes from other rooms the same day. “It was a book thief,” she says.
So perhaps you thought the three antique books artfully tied together on the lower hallway desk were part of the rustic design? Not entirely, says David Benton, who borrowed the books from a friend’s personal collection.
“To keep them here, we tied them up with some twine so they don’t get in someone’s purse,” he says. It’s one of many decorative touches and tricks; the shoulder-high shelves above the desk are another. “We try to keep things higher so thieves have to reach.” Anything at waist level is easier to slide into a purse or pocket.
Sometimes, visitors think some items are there for the taking: On preview day, someone walked off with a magazine that Benton had carefully selected for the space. “I don’t think it was intentional,” he says. “I think they thought it was a freebie, but it was all part of the staging.”
Most of the items in the space are on loan to the designers or part of their personal collections. “We ask a lot of friends,” says Michael Hampton, who sprinkled the library with antique books to make it look as though a well-traveled family had spent years collecting them.
Hampton once tied fishing line around a $50,000 set of antique silverware, then attached the line to the underside of a dining table with museum putty. If someone really wanted to steal a place setting, they could have, but “it would be a lot of clanking,” he says. It worked — not a single fork went missing.
Hampton admits that he has been lucky — and no one is likely to walk off with his $18,000 handmade Oushak rug. “I’m too trusting of people,” he says. “I’m more concerned with people being careless and breaking things. You sometimes have to take a leap of faith – and have good insurance.”
Still, for most designers, the desire to fill a room with the perfect art and accessories usually outweighs the remote threat of losing them.
Nancy Twomey of Finnian’s Moon Interiors did this year’s nursery — a perfect little space for a baby girl. She hung a small collection of exquisite baby clothes in the closet, including an heirloom baby sweater from Japan that she borrowed from a close friend. “That’s one of the things I worry about,” she admits.
Her co-worker Madelyn Smith added a silver duck bank from her home this year. For their first show-house nursery a few years ago, she loaned her childhood teddy bear — handmade by her grandmother. No fear of losing an irreplaceable treasure?
“We try to believe people are better than that,” Smith says. “And it’s those special touches that make the room special to us as designers.
“But beyond that, it’s what makes the house special for visitors. So if you don’t have that bit of soul, it’s not the same experience.”
But when Wessel sold her own home, she removed all of the small items before the house went on the market.
And that fishing line at her show-house breakfast room? Visitors keep asking why the items on the table are tied together, and are shocked when she tells them. So far, nothing has vanished.
“You know what? I’m a firm believer in karma,” she says. “What goes around comes around.”