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High metal prices trigger sculpture theft

For 40 years, art enthusiasts admired a 7-foot-tall modern bronze sculpture in a leafy park in south London close to a boating lake.

world Updated: Dec 30, 2011 01:12 IST

For 40 years, art enthusiasts admired a 7-foot-tall modern bronze sculpture in a leafy park in south London close to a boating lake.


But it seems others had their eye on it, too. "Two Forms (Divided Circle)," by the well-known British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, was stolen last week, and the widespread speculation here is that it will be melted down for cash.

As global metals prices have boomed, so, too, have incidents of metal theft, with thieves circling Britain like magpies searching for shiny objects. Energy firms, telecommunications companies and the country's rail network all reported record levels of metal theft in 2011, and officials suspect that organized crime groups are increasingly to blame.

Last week, London's Metropolitan Police launched a specialist squad to tackle the problem. By unhappy coincidence, the Hepworth sculpture, insured for nearly $800,000, was stolen on the very same day.

"It's heartbreaking," said Peter John, a local official in Southwark, where the sculpture resided. "It's such an important piece of art to be lost for scrap metal where thieves may get, what, a couple of thousand pounds?"

The economic cost of the surge in metal theft is estimated at more than $1 billion this year. A rail official recently warned that the spate of thefts on the railways, which frequently grind to a halt after copper cable is yanked from alongside the tracks, could snarl transport during the upcoming 2012 summer Olympics.

Metal thieves have made headlines over the past year by swiping public art, railway cables, phone cables, children's swings, stairs from fire escapes, bus shelters, manhole covers, doorknobs, musical instruments, metal grills, cabling from electrical substations and lead from church roofs.

(In exclusive partnership with The Washington Post. For additional content from The Washington Post, visit www.washingtonpost.com)