Friday, May 2, 2008

No Piece of Art is Safe: Copper Sculpture Thieves Strike

In an article published in the Wall Street Journal called Copper Caper: Thieves Nab Art To Sell for Scrap, Sarah McBride writes:

"When a sculpture called the "The Spirit of Life" was stolen from its public perch here, city officials reported it to the Federal Bureau of Investigation as a case of stolen art. But the local police said it was likely a different kind of crime: commodity theft.

Weighing about 250 pounds, the sculpture was cast in bronze, the main ingredient of which is copper. That made it a tempting target for thieves looking to cash in on skyrocketing copper prices by selling it to a scrap yard.

Manhole covers, pipes and wiring have already been targeted for theft in many cities, thanks to copper prices that have risen to about $4 a pound from $3.50 a year ago and $1.50 three years ago. In the prosperous Orange County city of Brea, home to a thriving public art program, big bronze sculptures are now on the hit list. The city has lost three such works in the past 18 months.

Art specialist Trinitee Manuel oversees Brea's public art programs. Along with commissioning works for bus shelters and organizing events for children, she's now something of an expert in security systems, metal-cutting tools, hidden cameras, and ways to protect open-air sculptures -- including shrub barriers. She's even considered installing LoJack-style devices on the more vulnerable pieces. "One thing we're trying to make sure we're not saying is, 'Hey, Brea is a target,'" she says.

Copper art thefts are leading some sculptors to rethink their use of bronze altogether. Arizona sculptor John Battenberg, who has a 50-year career working with bronze, says he ditched the material after he woke up one day to find gaping holes in the walls of his house, where panels from his monumental work, "The Gates of Arcadia," had rested. Mr. Battenberg mostly paints now.

Sculptor Joel Fisher, who had some 50 bronze works stolen from his Vermont studio last fall, says he hasn't been able to move beyond making simple models because the theft of so much of his life's work has stifled his "creative process."
Police believe the works of both artists ended up in scrap yards, though 31 of Mr. Fisher's sculptures were eventually recovered. Copper typically fetches a lower price secondhand than what's listed on commodities exchanges; metal with 66% copper content, typical for a bronze, might sell for around $2.45 a pound at the scrap yard.
Switching to Stone

In Brea, rapid growth in recent years has led to a public-art boom. Developments over $1.5 million are required to commission a piece of art. The city now has 144 public sculptures, of which almost 50 are bronze. Expressive and sturdy, bronze doesn't rust under extreme weather. While the city's population hits about 120,000 on weekdays, it shrinks to 40,000 at night as commuters and shoppers head home, leaving many areas deserted.

One of Brea's missing sculptures, William Cornwall's "Dove of Peace, Hope and Love," stood in front of a nondescript office building just off the freeway. The building was undergoing renovation when a contractor noticed the sculpture was no longer there, says Scott Boureston, a manager at Boureston Development Inc., which had bought the building in early 2006.

Mr. Boureston says he has no way of knowing exactly when the piece was taken, but he eventually notified the police last year and filed an insurance claim, recovering $8,000 of its $13,000 value. Sheila Rodgers, executive administrator at Boureston, is now preparing to commission a new work. She says she's staying far away from bronze and looking instead at a different metal or stone: "There's no way we're going to give [thieves] a second chance."

Police say such heists typically require more planning than those involving pipes or other small copper items because of the statues' sheer weight. Police Detective Jason Celmer, who has been assigned to the Brea cases, says he thinks two or three men typically tackle the sculptures, although it would be possible for one man with the right tools to do the job. "Most of these guys would back a truck up to [the sculpture], and knock it into the truck," he says.

"Spirit of Life" sat at the edge of a housing development in Brea, not far from City Hall. The piece, by sculptor John Kennedy, depicted a woman swinging a child through the air. Valued at $65,000, it was a favorite of DeAnne Nicholas and her daughter Stephani, now 25, who lived next door to it.

In the early hours of April 20 last year, Stephani Nicholas says she awoke to a racket. Thinking burglars were trying to make off with the patio furniture, she raced outside in time to see a red pickup truck roaring off. In the middle of the night, she says it was hard to gauge what exactly was missing; it wasn't until the next day that the Nicholases realized "Spirit" -- attached to its plinth by a single slim bolt -- was gone."

It is fairly sad when an artists work is no longer safe to be displayed outside, or contain a certain metal. This copper-craze has caused artists to rethink the medium they are working in which makes me quite mad. An artist should be free to express whatever they want in whatever form they want. Sculptors such as Joel Fisher should not have to feel as if their creative flame has been extinguished because thieves are stealing his works of art. This is much more than the theft of art, it is the theft of a piece of each of the artists who have been affected by these crimes.

Some people will do anything to make a penny, even when it hurts people. Manhole covers and copper wire can be easily replaced, but if a bronze sculpture is melted down or striped of its copper, that cannot be replaced. These pieces of art are one of a kind, and priceless to the artists and the art community.


Anonymous said...

What the heck are we going to do, All I work in is copper!