Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Melting point: Scrap metal dealers can be art thieves too


Henry Moore, Reclining Figure
In antiquity they used to tie sculptures down for fear that they would walk or fly away of their own volition. Such superstition eventually gave way to a grimmer reality governed by economic rationale. Public sculptures no longer move of their own accord — now they're stolen and melted down for scrap.

One of the most interesting items posted to the Museum Security Network in recent days was the Guide to the Problem of Scrap Metal Theft published by The Center for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP Center).

Although only a relatively small aspect of a larger problem, the theft and subsequent melting down of bronze and other metal statues is a branch of art crime that seems to be on the increase. The social impact of these losses is often more acutely felt than thefts of paintings from museums since public sculpture is highly visible, shares our social space, helps local people relate to their environment, and fosters social cohesion. 

Only this morning, an item in the Lancashire Evening Post (also circulated via the MSN digest) reported on the recent theft of two popular bronze animal sculptures from a public park in Cottam in Preston, Lancashire (Fury as bronze statues stolen from city estate). The works were by Dutch-born artist Marjan Wouda, who lives in Darwen, East Lancashire. Such thefts have a deleterious effect on the quality of life of local communities.

"It's such a shame," said one local resident, appalled at the way the sculptures had been crudely hacked off at their bases. "We’ve shown friends them as we’ve walked round the area. They were a local feature." A town councillor added, "It was just something you used to come across and it was quite nice. It was like a focal point."

The POP Center Guide referred to above suggests that scrap metal crimes are often committed by drug addicts and other petty criminals seeking access to quick cash. Some scrap metal merchants, it seems, are only too happy to turn a blind eye to the origin of the material they're melting down, just as many provincial auctioneers used to ask no questions when interesting and valuable consignments turned up straight off the back of a Volvo.

The importance of instilling Due Diligence procedures into the art and antiques trade is by no means complete, but at least most auctioneers are now aware of the risks of handling unprovenanced material and are more scrupulous about what they accept for sale. The broader trade seems to be a harder nut to crack.

It would be interesting to know what measures police and law enforcement agencies are taking to target the scrap metal merchants who are helping turn these objects into hard cash. One suspects it's not easy encouraging the adoption of a rigorous code of conduct in an informal trade that still has about it the whiff of the Victorian rag-and-bone man.

The scrap value of stolen sculpture — which is governed by prices on the London Metal Exchange — is a mere fraction of its true art market value. The Henry Moore Reclining Figure (above left) stolen in December 2005 may have been worth around £3 million on the open market, but its scrap metal value was estimated at just £1500.

Perhaps what's needed is a cost-effective solution to securing sculpture in public spaces. The Pangolin Foundry in Stroud, Gloucestershire, which casts all work by the late Lynn Chadwick, now strives to attach to its public sculptures large armatures that are deeply embedded in the ground, in an attempt to minimize the chance of theft.

I can think of something else that deserves to be deeply embedded in the ground — scrap metal dealers who melt down public sculptures.



Recent UK Statue Thefts

December 2005 — A Henry Moore bronze sculpture, Reclining Figure, valued at £3 million, stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire.

January 2006 — Part of a Lynn Chadwick bronze, The Watchers valued at around £600,000, stolen from Downshire House in the grounds of Roehampton University.

May 2006 — A bronze statue of a First World War soldier on horseback by Henry Pegram, valued at around £30,000, stolen from its plinth at St Leonard's Church in Semley, Wiltshire.

May 2006 — A bronze statue in memory of First World War veteran Sydney Mason Collins, valued at £15,000, stolen from St Mary's Church in Chedzoy, Somerset.

April 2009 — A bronze sculpture of a horse by British sculptor Elisabeth Frink, valued at more than £200,000, stolen from a garden in Surrey.

December 2009 — An unusual steel sculpture of two deer leaping over a fence stolen from a garden in Somerset.

March 2010 — A bronze statue commemorating Camilla Hamilton, a young girl killed in a car crash, stolen from the grounds of her Essex school.