Copper thieves target art pieces

Soaring copper prices lead to thefts of sculptures across the country


Heavy metal is driving the latest trend in art theft.

With the cost of copper and other metals skyrocketing, thieves around the world are targeting outdoor sculpture to sell as scrap.

Thus far, Philadelphia appears to have dodged the copper bullet. But not entirely.

In late January, the plaque from Henry Moore's 1964 bronze sculpture Three-Way Piece Number 1: Points was discovered missing from Triangle Park at 16th Street and the Parkway.

The plaque, which had been embedded in the grass next to the sidewalk, has not been found. The 7-foot, 3-inch sculpture, owned and maintained by the Fairmount Park Art Association, is untouched.

Other cities have not been as lucky.

In Warrenton, Ore., a 51/2-foot bronze statue of Sacagawea, the Indian guide, and her husband, Jean-Baptiste Charbonneau, was stolen from Lewis and Clark National Historical Park in January.

After a scrap-metal dealer notified police, three men were arrested; one was sentenced to 50 days in prison. Pieces of the statue had been sold to another dealer for $517, prosecutors said. As art, it was worth an estimated $20,000.

Peggy Kendellen, public-art manager for the Regional Arts and Cultural Council in Portland, attributed the theft to drugs. "Oregon has a meth problem, and people are turning in scrap for money," she says.

Also, China's need for construction materials in preparation for the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympic Games is fueling the worldwide market by driving up the price of many metals, experts say.

In Chicago, a 6-foot, 150-pound stainless steel sculpture was stolen in February from the front entrance of the Newberry Library. The statue's estimated worth: $60,000. Its scrap-market value: $300.

"It makes me sad," says Laura Griffith, assistant director of the Fairmount Park Art Association. "Artwork has far greater value than the price of melting down metal. It's a piece of our cultural heritage. It's unique, one of a kind."

Copper is a major component in bronze - the metal of choice for most outdoor sculpture because of its durability, Griffith says. Of the 29 pieces under the group's purview, 21 are bronze. Almost all are mounted on a granite base.

Even before the theft, a new signage system had been installed for works along the Parkway. A joint project with the Center City District, the porcelain-and-enamel signs include background on the artist and sculpture.

The Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority oversees more than 450 outdoor sculptures generated by the authority's "one percent" public-art program. Very few are bronze, according to program director Susan Davis.

About two years ago, a piece from a stainless steel sculpture was stolen from in front of the Dockside condominiums on Columbus Boulevard near South Street, Davis says.

Thieves took one of the 30 stainless steel fish from Magdalena Abakanowicz's Open-air Aquarium, installed in 2003. Each six-foot fish rests on a 10- to 12-foot pole and weighs about 130 pounds, she says.

The piece was never recovered and has been replaced, Davis says. When a work of art is taken, "it's very searing," she adds. "These projects take a long time and require a huge amount of emotional energy."

Outdoor sculpture makes an inviting target because it offers large amounts of metal in a freestanding object, says Glenn Harper, editor of Sculpture magazine. "It's sitting there. You don't have to break into a gallery."

Managing editor Twylene Moyer says she's receiving increasing reports of sculpture thievery from across the world, including England, New Zealand and Japan. California has seen "many."

Artists will continue to work with bronze, Harper says, but if commissioning agencies start cutting back, the artists may start to use other materials.

Everyone agrees that security issues will have to be addressed. The Fairmount Park Art Association is considering the use of security cameras, Griffith says.

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