Police carrying out a nationwide hunt for a Henry Moore sculpture worth £3m have discovered the lorry believed to have been used to steal the two-ton work of art.
Owners of the massive bronze sculpture, which measures three metres long and two metres high (10ft by 6ft 6in), fear the thieves may try to melt down the art work and sell it for scrap.
But one art specialist said that the gang may try to ship it to the United States and sell it to a "dodgy dealer". It could then be sold on - possibly as a copy - for $100,000 (£57,000) to $200,000. Police, who have described the sculpture, Reclining Figure, as a national treasure, have alerted the ports.
Detectives are convinced that a three-man team had planned the theft of the sculpture from the Henry Moore Foundation in Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, at 10.10pm on Thursday.
Yesterday officers discovered a Mercedes flat-bed lorry, which is thought to have driven off with the Reclining Figure, in Coopersale, near Epping, Essex. The lorry, with a lifting crane on the back, had been stolen from Roydon, Essex, about an hour before the theft.
The work of art was seen by a member of the public on the back of a lorry within an hour of the theft, about 12 miles away in Harlow, Essex.
Chief Inspector Richard Harbon, of Hertfordshire Police, said that police classed the sculpture as a "national treasure" and that his force's detectives were working with the Metropolitan Police's stolen arts squad. He added: "It is a nationally renowned sculpture and very, very difficult to get rid of. This is not opportunist theft. These are people who knew what they were doing, knew what they were after. A very, very audacious theft."
Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the London-based Art Loss Register, a database of 160,000 items stolen, said one possibility was that the thieves would try to sell the sculpture abroad. "It would be possible to get a dodgy dealer in the United States to pay about $25,000 for it. They could then sell it on to someone at the more respectable end of the art trade for about $75,000. This in turn could be sold, possibly as a copy of an original Henry Moore to avoid suspicion, for $100,000 to $200,000."
He added that it would be relatively easy to box up the sculpture and ship it across the Atlantic without anyone recognising or examining it.
The Art Loss Register already has 86 stolen Henry Moore sculptures listed on its books, although they are much smaller than the Reclining Figure.
"I don't think it will be melted down because it is worth so little as scrap," he added. The bronze is thought to be worth about £5,000 as scrap metal.
The owners of the statue, created between 1969 and 1970, are offering an undisclosed reward in excess of the scrap value in the hope that anyone approached will contact the police.
Another possibility is that the criminals involved did not fully appreciate the difficulty they would have in selling on the stolen work, and may end up hiding it until the publicity dies down.
The statue was taken from a farmyard next to the Henry Moore Foundation visitor centre, where it was awaiting repositioning after being removed from a display in a field. The theft was captured on CCTV. Police were still searching for a second vehicle used in the theft, believed to be a Daihatsu four-wheel drive with spotlights on the front.Reuse content