22 Aug 2014
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Copper Thieves Hammering Public Art

Plans for light-pole sculptures spur scavenger horror stories – and ideas for solutions.

Copper Thieves Hammering Public Art Copper Thieves Hammering Public Art

When pictures emerged of the circular slated for placement along San Pablo Avenue, theft-weary residents questioned how long it would take for vandals to commandeer the copper for scrap metal.

The cynicism is understandable. Civic art commissions here and abroad are still rocking from the theft of Reclining Figure, a two-ton Henry Moore sculpture worth an estimated $4.7 million. Police say thieves backed a flatbed truck up to the sculpture and drove it away. Investigators believe the melted-down metal turned up in China as electrical components. The cache: Around $2,300.

Just before Christmas, vandals sawed Barbara Hepworth’s bronze  Two forms (Divided Circle) from its base in a South London public park. So far, a reward has not turned up any leads.

“The theft of public art and metal is becoming a sickening epidemic,” Council leader Peter John told the UK Press Association after the Dec. 19 theft, describing the loss as "devastating.”

Last month, a copper sword from a statue at Lincoln's burial site in Springfield, Ill. disappeared. In Minnesota, letters from the  35W memorial walked away hours after the dedication ceremony.

But the epidemic extends far beyond the art world. Copper thieves have become the bane of transit agencies, cities and even nonprofit organizations, stripping metal from wires and pipes that power essential services. In Houston, missing conduit plunged a library into darkness. In Detroit, power was cut to a firehouse. In Arkansas, a disabled chiller reduced a municipal skating rink to a field of mush.

BART's losses this year alone top $90,000.

Not only do vandals wreak colossal damage, cost their victims a small fortune and set back public projects – often the return is miniscule, even with copper valued at $4 a pound.

In Syracuse, N.Y., thieves racked up thousands of dollars in damage to a Habitat for Humanity home being built for a paraplegic veteran -- just to gain $100 worth of copper piping.

Mention the damage-to-profit ratio, and you’ll get an “amen” from Jonathan Russell, who with his wife Saori Ide is crafting the El Cerrito sculptures. Four years ago, a thief plucked a sculpture from back of Russell’s truck. Ide found it one morning in the yard at Ohmega Salvage. The thief had netted a grand $5.

That's one reason penalties should target scrap metal dealers instead of those supplying them, some suggest.

“It really is time that the scrap metal industry was cleaned up," said a Guardian poster in response to the Hepworth theft. "Somebody out there is making a tidy profit on the theft of art and infrastructure, and you can bet it’s not the actual thieves.”

Meanwhile, security can come in the form of bolt-down overkill, curators and artists say.

Some sculptors hold onto original cast work, and put reproductions in place using less costly materials -- steel or resin, for instance.

Bay Area sculptor Brian Goggin, who has installed work in San Francisco, New York and Seattle, will replace cast bronze identification plaques purloined from " Convertibles" in Menlo Park and The Body of Urban Myth in Palo Alto with steel or cast concrete.

"We artists depend on the locals to care for the artwork, respect and protect their cultural legacy," said Goggin, whose outsize work resists vandalism.  "It is, however, a human tendency to melt down bronze sculpture as they did to most Greek bronze sculptures when the material was needed for weapons or for other purposes."

Russell suggests that cities benefit when a sculpture is installed high above the heads of admirers, passersby and potential thieves.

Russell's Cod in Flight floats 16 feet off the ground on Huntington Avenue at the foot of the Mission Hill neighborhood -- a rough section of Boston. In 15 years, it has never been vandalized, he said.

And the San Pablo Avenue icons -- for which the city is insured, incidentally -- will dangle from 20-foot-high perches.

"It would be quite the effort to get up there," he said. "Vandalism is not an issue."

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