As another bronze is stolen, police fear treasures are going for scrap
Owen BOWCOTT, The Guardian
ˇ Twenty sculptures go missing around London
ˇ Increasing demand for copper behind thefts
A huge, modernist sculpture has disappeared from a university campus in west London, heightening fears that monumental bronzes are being targeted by thieves cashing in on booming scrap metal prices. One of The Three Watchers, a set of figures created by Lynn Chadwick in 1960 and estimated to be worth ?300,000, was stolen from the grounds of Roehampton University after being snapped off at the feet.
The theft occurred less than a month after a gigantic Henry Moore figure was driven away from a sculpture park in Hertfordshire. Both statues were taken at night.
The Metropolitan police's art and antiques unit said yesterday that as many as 20 similar thefts of bronze artworks had been reported in and around the capital within the past year. The officer leading the investigation urged sculpture owners to protect them or move them indoors last night.
Soaring scrap prices have opened up an opportunity for gangs to pocket a quick profit. The Henry Moore sculpture, taken in mid-December, was believed to be worth around ?5,000 if melted down; the Chadwick may fetch as little as ?1,000.
Reduced to its metal content, the figures are worth only a fraction of their art market value but neither police nor art dealers believe such large objects would be stolen to order for a private collector. In many cases, the sculptures have been severely damaged.
Bronze is an alloy of mainly copper and tin. In the past year, the international copper market has hit record highs, boosted by the Chinese economic demand for electrical components.
"It's very sad," said Chris Cobb, pro-vice chancellor at Roehampton. "We think the statue may have been stolen for scrap. It disappeared on the night of January 10. There were no tyre tracks, but it was near a perimeter wall.
"It must have taken a number of people to manhandle it onto a lorry," he added. "There was nothing on the CCTV pictures. The university only acquired the building last year and the statue came with it. The sculpture had stood there for 40 years. We are offering a reward for its return."
The rest of The Three Watchers - the damaged plinth and the two remaining figures - has been removed for safe storage. The university has been told the mould still exists at Chadwick's old foundry in Gloucestershire, so it would be possible to cast a replacement figure.
Chadwick, who was born in London in 1914, studied drawing, watercolour and oil painting before working as an architectural draughtsman in London from 1933 to 1939. He spent some time as a farm labourer before gaining a commission with the Fleet Air Arm during the second world war. He came to sculpture relatively late, holding his first exhibition in London in 1950, but his reputation grew rapidly.
He won the international prize for sculpture at the Venice Biennale in 1956 and was awarded a CBE in 1964. In 1958, the sculptor bought Lypiatt Park, near Stroud in Gloucestershire, where he was buried after his death in April 2003.
Peter Osborne, the owner of the West End gallery Osborne Samuel, told the Guardian yesterday that he had been making preparations to transport the The Three Watchers from Roehampton to the Gloucestershire foundry for repairs. "We would have removed it some time ago but we had problems at the last minute with obtaining planning permission from English Heritage because it was listed," he said. "Before we could get that arranged, it was taken.
"I don't think it's been stolen by a 'Mr Big' for his private collection. I fear it's been broken up into lumps with an oxyacetylene torch."
He said The Three Watchers was one of Chadwick's most important works. "These were sentinel figures, symbolic of what he was doing at the time. They were not necessarily military figures or threatening, unlike some of his other pieces.
"The art critic Herbert Read described that style of sculpture as the 'geometry of fear' ... I was planning to organise an exhibition of this period and was going to display this work."
Detective Sergeant Vernon Rapley, the head of the Metropolitan police's arts and antiques unit, declined to identify any of the other artworks apart from the Henry Moore. "They were all large bronzes," he said. "Not in any one particular style. They included human figures, abstracts and even a seven-foot cockroach. In one case, the thieves stole part of a sculpture. We don't know whether this is one gang or a number of copycat operations.
"The only thing the sculptures had in common was their commodity: bronze."
ˇ Last March, two lithographs and a watercolour by Edvard Munch were stolen from a Norwegian hotel but recovered within 24 hours
ˇ In August 2004, Munch's The Scream and The Madonna were stolen from the Munch museum in Oslo. The Scream, valued at up to ?41m, is too well known to be sold on the open market
ˇ In March 1999, Head of a Woman (Dora Maar), by Pablo Picasso, was stolen from a yacht in Antibes, France. It is worth at least ?4m. Two months earlier, Paul Cezanne's Auvers-sur-Oise, worth ?3m, was stolen from Oxford's Ashmolean Museum
ˇ In 1997, a 10in tall sculpture by Henry Moore was stolen from a London gallery and later found in a taxi
ˇ In the same year, a burglar crawled through a gallery skylight in Piacenza, Italy and stole Gustav Klimt's Portrait of a Woman (below) valued at ?2m