By Patrick Hedlund
DNAinfo News Editor
MANHATTAN — A longtime Lower East Side antiques purveyor was arrested last week for selling subway signs at his East Houston Street flea market — items he says he’s hawked without incident for the last dozen years.
Billy Leroy, the owner of Billy’s Antiques and Props at the corner of Elizabeth Street, sells all manner of exotica out of his makeshift shop, from local artwork to defunct subway signs culled from stations across the city.
Last Friday, transit police arrested Leroy and charged him with criminal possession of stolen property as part of an ongoing investigation, a police source said.
The signs have sat in plain view in front of his flea market for years, and Leroy explained that he buys them from a subcontractor with the MTA whose job it is to dispose of the signs after installing new ones at various subway stations.
“It’s not like I sent an army of crackheads into the station to remove these signs,” Leroy told DNAinfo. “The whole thing is ridiculous.”
The source of Leroy’s signs had been a closely guarded secret, and he said in a 2008 interview that if he revealed his supplier “every shop would have them.”
Leroy said he turned over his source's name and contact information to police, and has been co-operating with the investigation.
The signs, which range in size and cost anywhere from $50 to $1,800, have become popular collector items, Leroy said. When the city restored a World Trade Center-area subway station prior to 9/11, he said he saw MTA signs that would command top dollar today sitting in dumpsters.
“It’s old New York,” he said. “I would love to work with the MTA and really get some money for the subway signs.”
Leroy — who counts celebrities among his clientele and whose limited-edition T-shirts have been spotted being worn by such stars as Fergie of the Black Eyed Peas — has been selling obscure tchotchkes out of his overstuffed tent since the late 1990s.
Police had inquired about the legiticmacy of the signs a decade ago when he first displayed them at the shop, Leroy told NYC The Blog after last week's incident, but backed off when he put them in contact with his supplier.
He suggested that the arrest is part of a larger attempt to sanitize the increasingly upscale area as new restaurants and residential buildings move in around him.
“They must have known I’ve been selling these for years,” Leroy said.