Rising Price of Scrap Metal Fuels Spate of Stolen Modern Masterpieces
Last night thieves stole a bronze sculpture by the seminal British artist Barbara Hepworth, from a London park. It is yet another example of the thriving black market for stolen scrap metal. The thieves boldly drove into the park, located in the upmarket area of Dulwich South London, in the night, hacking the sculpture from its base and removing the piece leaving behind the plinth. Staff at Dulwich park stated that it was a professional job, as “The work is a very heavy piece of metal”. The park rangers came across the crime scene on the morning of 20 December, after noticing the padlock of the park’s Queen Mary gate, which leads straight on to the South Circular road, was severed. The theft comes a day after Scotland Yard launched its first dedicated unit to tackle the growing problem of metal thefts. This is a growing crime believed to cost about £700m a year. Hepworth, is considered to be one of the UK’s most important modern sculptors, with work displayed in museums and public spaces around the world. She died in 1975.
There have been many high profile stories in the news lately about the theft of copper cables from railway lines and church roof flashings. However, the rising price of scrap metal is now threatening the very fabric of our contemporary cultural heritage, with public works of sculpture stolen and smelted, as a result of the rising price of copper. Bronze sculptures which are fashioned out of 90% copper and 10% tin are involved in a large proportion of the works of art stolen in the UK in the last five years. A small fraction of the value of the art is ever achieved, however scrap value is still lucrative and enticing to a new breed of ruthless thieves.
The work, one of six casts titled Two Forms (Divided Circle) made in 1969, was acquired by the Greater London council in 1970 and transferred into the ownership of Southwark council when the GLC was abolished. The sculpture was only insured for £500,000, a fraction of the true value of the work on the open market. Hepworth made the piece in the late 1960s when she was producing large sculptures that were trying to involve the viewer in some way. She once said of it: “You can climb through the Divided Circle – you don’t need to do it physically to experience it.” “The theft of this important piece of 20th-century public art from Dulwich park is devastating,” stated The leader of Southwark council, Peter John, also said. “The theft of public art and metal is becoming a sickening epidemic. I would ask the Met police and their metal theft taskforce to investigate this theft as a matter of urgency and would ask anyone with any information about the whereabouts of the sculpture to contact us or the police.”
The growing demand for copper by countries like China, seeking a cheaper source of this raw material, fueled by the booming electronics industries,, has created an unprecedented market for recycled copper. Prices make sculptures such as Henry Moore’s “Reclining Figure” desirable as a source of scrap metal. The well known figure was stolen in 2005 by thieves who used a crane and a stolen truck to remove the sculpture from the Henry Moore Foundation grounds in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, sparking a global search for the culprits. The sculpture was worth around £3m, and police believe that the internationally known sculpture was cut up and melted down for around £1,500 in scrap metal. Initially the police thought the figure was stolen for its value on the art market. In 2009 investigators announced their belief that the sculpture was sold for scrap. Key British artists including, Lynn Chadwick’s The Watchers, stolen in 2006, Elisabeth Frink bronze horse, stolen in 2009 and Robert Mileham who had 3 sculptures stolen in 2006 have been targeted. The sheer size of some of the stolen sculptures requires a new breed of thieves with the knowledge and the means of shifting large and heavy objects. The scope of the task to remove large artworks, in the dark is dangerous.