Sunday, March 10, 2002

Latest Reappearing Act

Recovered Houdini bust
Harry Houdini, that legendary escape artist, reappeared Friday night in the shape of a 2 1/2-foot, stern-faced bust stolen from his headstone almost two decades ago.

Nassau police said they found the marble-composite bust Friday, stored in a cardboard box in the bedroom of a New Hyde Park man's house.

"[The bust] was missing since August 14, 1983," Det. Lt. Kevin Smith said at a news conference in Mineola yesterday.

With it, Smith said, were three newspaper articles, dating from Aug. 15, 1983, detailing the theft of Houdini's bust, then worth $500, from the Machpelah Cemetery in Glendale, Queens. The bust is now valued at $10,000, Smith said.

Police charged Stephen Chotowicky, of 1007 First Ave. in New Hyde Park, with third-degree possession of stolen property, a felony, punishable by 1 to 7 years in jail.

Chotowicky was arraigned and is being held on $15,000 cash bail at Nassau University Medical Center's detention unit. It was unclear why Chotowicky was at the medical center.

Police do not know whether Chotowicky, 43, stole the statue in 1983 or acquired it later.

The trail to the bust began with Chotowicky himself. Police said he filed a complaint against his son-in-law, claiming he stole some of his tools. Police found the charges unfounded but learned from the son-in-law, whom police did not identify, that Chotowicky had a bust of Houdini.

Chotowicky's wife, Linda, also was arrested and charged Friday for traffic law violations unrelated to the theft, said Patrick Byrne, a police spokesman. No additional information was available.

Born Ehrich Weiss, the magician died on Oct. 31, 1926, leaving an ornate cemetery monument that has been vandalized numerous times. Houdini fans and magicians across the country reveled at the great-escape artist's resurfaced bust.

"That's Harry for you," exclaimed John Bohannon of Wantagh, who heads the New York City chapter of the Society of American Magicians' Houdini Committee. "I'm thrilled ... I'm glad he's back. I just hope that we'll be able to get it back and put it back in our archives where it belongs."

Police said they will hold the bust until the case is solved.

Bruce J. Lish, regional vice president of the Society of American Magicians, said it will make a claim for the bust since the society maintains and monitors Houdini's gravesite and holds an annual service there.

There's a discrepancy between police and magicians as to which bust was found.
Police say the recovered bust is the third one erected at Houdini's monument. According to police, the original Houdini bust was damaged; a second one disappeared in 1975 and was never recovered; and the third one was stolen in 1983.

However, Bohannon believes the bust found in New Hyde Park could be the original copy.

Bohannon said Houdini had a bronze bust made of himself while alive. He added that a marble copy of that bust was placed at Houdini's cemetery plot after he died, which was either stolen or destroyed in 1975.

The American Society of Magicians then borrowed the original bronze bust from a city museum and made copies of it with a gray plastic resin. One was placed on the cemetery monument and stolen in 1983, and another one was stolen in the late 1980s, Bohannon said.

The recovered bust is white, which leads Bohannon to believe it's the original, unless one of the copies was painted.

"The copies were dark gray," he said. "This sounds like it was the original, stolen back in 1975."

Whether it's the original or not, magicians say the bust is probably worth more than $10,000.

"This is probably priceless now," said John Bravo, co-director of The Houdini Museum in Scranton, Pa. "I'm elated," he added. "I hope they really punish this guy. It's a horror to desecrate somebody's grave."

Chotowicky's family could not be reached for comment. Neighbors say he and his wife have five or six children and are quiet and hard-working.

"I think it's amusing because it was gone for 20 years, and then it's found right on this block," said Micky Halpern, 40, a nurse who lives down the street from the family.

"Maybe that's what the tapping was on my door," she said, with a laugh. "Houdini's ghost."


By Sumathi Reddy
Copyright © 2002, Newsday, Inc.

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