London police admitted last week they haven't a clue as to why thieves in the last six months have spirited away at least 20 bronze sculptures, each weighing half a ton or more.
On Jan. 10, at a university campus in Roehampton, a 2.2-m-tall sculpture weighing one-third of a ton by the British modernist Lynn Chadwick was hacked from its plinth. One of a trio of figures, The Watchers, it is valued at $1 million far less than the $5.4 million price tag on Henry Moore's 2.5-ton Reclining Figure that in December was lifted, using a stolen flatbed crane, from the grounds of the late artist's foundation in Hertfordshire. William Webber of the Art Loss Register, which tracks the lucrative global market in stolen art, says "it's difficult to know where they might end up." Despite their size and fame, he adds, "There's definitely a market for them."
But in what form? The other pieces, among them a war memorial, a giant dung beetle and a life-size boar, are less valuable and have nothing in common except that they are big, unguarded and made of bronze. Vernon Rapley, head of Scotland Yard's Arts and Antiques Unit, fears the worst. "They've either been rapidly exported or melted down" a thought Rapley finds "quite repugnant." But the market price for raw copper has leapt 170% since 2003 to more than $4,800 a ton, driven by demand from countries like China and India. And with scrap prices also on a high, police in the U.S., Belgium, Poland, Switzerland and elsewhere are seeing a surge in thefts of items like copper cable and pipes.
Thieves may not know much about art, but they know what they like: Moore's Reclining Figure could earn them a quick $9,000 from a chop shop.