Tuesday, December 20, 2011
The theft of public sculpture has got to stop
Art theft is all too familiar in Dulwich. Dulwich Picture Gallery is Britain's oldest public art gallery and has been targeted by thieves on more than one occasion. In 1966, Michael Hall, an unemployed ambulance driver, drilled a hole in a door and made off with three Rembrandts, three works by Rubens, and paintings by Adam Elsheimer and Gerard Dou. Happily the pictures were recovered a short time later, some of them discovered wrapped in newspaper under a bush in Rookery Park, Streatham, another popular pleasure spot.
In market value terms, Barbara Hepworth's bronze cannot compare with Rembrandt's Girl at a Window, but that is hardly the issue. Its real value is in the pleasure it gives to countless thousands of strolling dog-walkers, joggers and families on their Sunday outing. Its scrap value may be fairly significant to the despicable thugs who stole it, but as an important work of public sculpture by one of Britain's preeminent modernist artists it is irreplaceable and in that sense, priceless. Why, then, have local authorities offered just £1000 for information leading to its recovery? How brainless is that?
Hepworth's Two Forms can now be added to the melancholy roll-call of public sculpture stolen as a result of soaring scrap metal prices. The list is beginning to read like the index of a book on British sculpture as works by Lynn Chadwick, Henry Moore, and William Goscombe-John — to name just a few — have disappeared from public locations in recent years, never to be seen again.
Public sculpture theft is now out of control and something has to be done before all our parks and public spaces are desecrated in this way. I have no remedy for this problem, but if I were a chief at the Met I'd sure as hell light some fires under a few people. At present, the web pages devoted to metal theft at the Centre for Problem-Oriented Policing (POP) make almost no reference to art or sculpture theft save to point out how inadequate security encourages thefts. It's time someone at the Met gave POP a new department — POP (ART).
We may not know who stole the Hepworth, but whoever they are will have set up a yard willing to melt it down. Those locations and the people who run them should also be known to police.
Single Form is in good company at Battersea, sharing the park with Henry Moore's Three Standing Figures and Eric Kennington's dignified war memorial to the 24th Division that served at the Western Front. Happily the Moore and the Kennington are both in stone and so — for the time being at least — are relatively safe. The Hepworth should now be put under closer watch.