A valuable sculpture by the artist Barbara Hepworth has been stolen. Police believe that the work of art has been melted down and sold as scrap metal. This is a further example of widespread metal theft in the U.K.
One of the consequences of the recession in the U.K., and around many parts of the world, is that the trade in illegal merchandises tends to increase particularly with valuable commodities such as metal. Metal prices have risen inexorably in the past year, especially with the price of bronze.
In the past thieves have targeted railway tracks, stolen cables from electrical boxes or raided scrap metal merchants. Thefts have even included radiotherapy machines from hospitals. A recent trend, however, has been a focus upon metal sculptures (for example, earlier in the year a bronze statue was stolen from Vancouver National Park). Many of these works of art are unprotected and are positioned in parks and other open spaces, making them an easy target for criminals at night.
The Australian reports about one of recent thefts. In Dulwich Park, South London, Barbara Hepworth's Two Forms (Divided Circle) (1969) had stood for park goers to admire for 40 years. Earlier this week it had disappeared, leaving just two stumps and a plinth. The bronze statue was insured for £500,000 (approximately $785,000).
According to The Daily Mail, the thieves used cutting equipment, including an industrial axle grinder, and took the sculpture away in a van. Two people are thought to have been involved.
The loss of the artwork has affected local residents. The Guardian quotes Trevor Moore, chairman of Dulwich park friends, as saying: "it has always been there as long as I've been in Dulwich," he said. "It's just one of those things which is always there as you wander past and you feel like you've had a finger chopped off, in all honesty."
As an indication of the value to the work of art, although it was insured for half-a-million pounds it may only fetch £750 (around $1000) as scrap metal. For those wishing to read more about Dame Barbara Hepworth’s lost sculpture, the Tate gallery has some images and details of the modernist abstract work. Hepworth is generally regarded as one of Britain’s most important artists and was a contemporary of Henry Moore.
The story is not only Hepworth’s destroyed work. The theft has caused alarm across the U.K. The Daily Telegraph reports that several local authorities are considering fitting motion sensor alarms alongside similar works of art. The story also raises issues about the regulation of scrap metal sales. Many people are able to sell metal to traders without the need for identification and without having to verify ownership of the metal. If major thefts continue, then the mechanism for buying and selling metal may become subject to urgent reform.