Barbara Hepworth Two Forms (Divided Circle), 1970. Dulwich Park, London. Stolen December 2011.
The deliberate theft of whole sculptural works has become evident over the last few years partly due to the increased value of metal but also due to deliberate targeting of vulnerable and badly defined public sculpture: the repeated theft of a series of works in parks and cemeteries created by William Goscombe John suggests that 'metal thieves' can also possess taste. This steady erosion of 'heritage assets' applies equally to new as well as old pieces of public art: the very prominent 2006 figure by Steinunn Thorarinsdottir in Hull caused international outcry since it was one of a pair of pieces twinning the city of Hull with Iceland town of Vik. The bronze figure of a soldier at Tidworth, Wiltshire was stolen in 2011 and identifiable parts of this were discovered in March 2012. A whole bronze figure of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was stolen from Nayland, Pembrokeshire in 2010 and the removal of a series of modern works sited in parks has infuriated local communities.
Reporting of such losses is vital: both the police and local authorities need to be informed so that action may be taken as soon as possible. The more theft is reported the better national statistics can be generated. In order to allow a better understanding of motives, recoveries and security provisions the more that is reported the more analysis can be made and appropriate security measure planned and put into place. There is no other national audit of public art and the PMSA is the unique provider of such information. However the core database is still being recorded and will take about another 3/5 years to fulfil. In the meantime those who are interested in preserving their local heritage should check to see what is already logged on our database and if there is data still to be collated contact the PMSA to see how you may help and link into the programme.
The PMSA is extremely concerned about the increase in the rather selective removal of key pieces of public art. The recent publicity surrounding the theft of the Barbara Hepworth in Dulwich Park, London, the Henry Moore in Hertfordshire and the Lynn Chadwick in Roehampton has prompted the need for a national forum where issues of security and conservation can be properly assessed - despite today's prevalence in erecting pieces of public art it is striking that, apart from networks concerned with antiques on private property, no such forum purely devoted to public sculpture currently exists in Britain. Without channelling such communications about the apparently increasing risks in the public realm there is little that can be done to combat this worrying trend. However, the PMSA has contacted Simon Thurley at English Heritage, which has initiated discussion with EH personnel on how to respond to this problem and how best to involve the police, insurance and other organisations whose role it is to alert owners [and the public] to what can only be called public art theft.
For advice on the steps to take when reporting a theft to the Police, visit our .
In recent years, with ever increasing numbers of metal thefts of all kinds, there have been a number of initiatives to combat this growing trade.
The Alliance to Reduce Crime Against Heritage (ARCH), is a national network set up to ‘tackle heritage crime and galvanise local action as part of the Heritage Crime Initiative.’ As members of ARCH we fully endorse their aims to protect the heritage of this country.
To read about the work of ARCH visit their website
Welcome publicity was generated when Channel Four aired an interview with Save our Sculpture Chair, Ian Leith, just before Christmas 2008. As Leith says, ‘This form of cultural looting questions security, heritage bodies, arts funding, and insurance concerns'.
Any information from PMSA members, or member of the public, which could inform such discussions are welcome – we are well aware of vandalism but more information about the complete removal of entire pieces (especially outside London) and of sculpture or monuments below these high-profile levels would allow us to begin to understand the underlying motives. In conjunction with existing records generated by the National Recording Project such details (including war memorials) would provide a useful context since it is by no means clear whether media stories about the scrap value of bronze do actually constitute the sole or sufficient reason for the removal of public assets.
A meeting was hosted by Tate Britain in February 2009, attended by conservation and security representatives from there, and by members of other like-minded organisations such as WMT and UKNIWM. Discussion included the Rise of Public Art Loss, Recording (sources and mechanisms), Security (including electronic tagging and tracking), Liaison & Feedback across the sector (private and public) and the Pros and Cons of Publicity. Also discussed were motives for theft including the value of materials and the international art market. Held at the War Memorials Trust, attended by representatives from WMT, the UK National Inventory of War Memorials (UKNIWM) and the PMSA are seeking a unified approach to this escalating problem. Leith has also set up a more broadly ranging meeting, to be hosted by Tate Britain and attended by conservation and security representatives from there, and by members of other like-minded organisations such as WMT and UKNIWM. The suggested agenda for discussion will include the Rise of Public Art Loss, Recording (sources and mechanisms), Security (including electronic tagging and tracking), Liaison & Feedback across the sector (private and public) and the Pros and Cons of Publicity. Also to be discussed – the motives for theft including the value of materials and the international art market.