Keith McClinsey didn't bat an eyelash when he spotted a silver Champagne bucket for sale on eBay that had been filched by the seller's father during a long-ago party at the Renaissance Mayflower Hotel.
He was a tad perplexed, however, to learn of a 5-gallon punchbowl that vanished after a holiday fete in the 1950s.
"How does someone carry a 5-gallon punchbowl out of a Christmas party?" muses the hotel's senior sales manager.
And last month, after picking up two 1920s banquet chairs in suburban Virginia for repatriation to the historic hotel, McClinsey still had no idea how they got away.
The Mayflower recently put out word it was launching a no-questions-asked amnesty program for return of items pilfered throughout its eight-decade existence.
The effort coincides with the publication of "McClinsey's Images of America: Washington, D.C.'s Mayflower Hotel" (Arcadia Publishing, $19.95), which highlights the hotel's colorful history. But the program is as much about gathering stories as it is about reclaiming stuff, both of which eventually will be on exhibit together.
"We get a lot of random calls from (adult) children cleaning out closets," McClinsey says. "They'll say, 'I found this, and it had your name on it. Do you want it back?' As these folks are passing on, the stories are passing with them. We're interested in the stories as much as the items."
Other historic hotels have made similar attempts. The Peabody Memphis is seeking artifacts for its memorabilia room. The Hotel Del Coronado in San Diego, where a director of heritage programs receives returned artifacts, is on the lookout for historic photographs to display this year when the hotel celebrates its 120th anniversary.
The Mission Inn in Riverside, Calif., operates a foundation and museum to preserve artifacts, some of which have been donated by former guests or sold back by collectors.
In 2006 alone, 400 items came back. In 2007, the management created the Bringing It Home program to mark the hotel's 30th anniversary as a National Historic Landmark. Among the give-backs: seven intricate brass bells with a confessional note saying they were taken from the hotel's underground tunnels in a "not very funny" teenage prank in the 1960s.
Repatriation programs aren't strictly the provenance of historic hotels. In 2003, Holiday Inn threw a Towel Amnesty Day, inviting sticky-fingered guests to share their stories about "borrowing" towels and promising absolution and possible inclusion in the resulting book, "About the Towels, We Forgive You."
Hotel pilferage is widespread. In an October survey of members of the online travel community TripAdvisor, 22 percent of the more than 2,500 respondents admitted helping themselves to everything from bathrobes to decorative pieces to glassware.
The larceny amounted to an estimated $100 million in 2000, according to the American Hotel & Lodging Association, though that figure also includes employee theft.
At the Mayflower, McClinsey says the tab for replacement of filched and broken glass, china and silverware is about $300,000 a year. Towel theft is on the wane, he reports. The current most in-demand items are wine glasses etched with the hotel's name.
"I'm not sure what enters people's heads when they're having a glass of wine and decide they want the glass," McClinsey says.
Still, pinching a souvenir may be less prevalent than in past eras. In 1957, for instance, one of Mayflower's resident silversmiths reported the hotel lost 4,000 spoons.
"People didn't travel as much back then. So when they did, they'd want a memory and they'd slip things in their pockets," McClinsey says.
But in earlier times, hotels expected -- and even encouraged -- pilfering by embossing their names or logos on objects, says Christine Donovan, the Hotel Del Coronado's director of heritage programs. "It was a marketing device," she says.
Donovan sees an upside to this sort of petty thievery. "If it hadn't been for the people who pilfered, we wouldn't have what we have now," she says.
Judging from amnesty-related tales, weddings and other big occasions seem to incite larceny.
Last summer, a couple celebrating their 60th anniversary checked into the Brown Palace Hotel in Denver with a Reed & Barton silver teapot and a note saying they had used it for six decades as a chocolate pot. The manager of the Peabody received a $30 check and a heartfelt note signed "An Anonymous War Bride of 1943" from an 81-year-old making amends for a bath mat taken as a honeymoon souvenir.
Some hotels proffer rewards to the sticky-fingered. Boston's Fairmont Copley Plaza threw a party in 1997 for participants in its amnesty program, which yielded about 200 items. And in Brazil, the Hilton São Paulo Morumbi is promoting a Take It With You package through 2008 with upgrades and signature items for guests who return anything with a Hilton logo lifted from a previous visit.