Theft of bronze statues worth £45,000 linked to 'artworks for scrap' gang

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The Independent Online

Two bronze statues worth £45,000 in total have become the latest artworks to be stolen by thieves believed to be taking sculptures for their scrap value.

Police will examine whether the criminals behind the most recent thefts in Wiltshire and Gloucestershire are responsible for taking a £3m Henry Moore bronze sculpture last December.

Detectives are also expected to investigate any links with the theft in January of part of a £600,000 bronze sculpture by Lynn Chadwick from grounds of a London university. In total more than 20 similar thefts of bronze artworks have been carried out throughout the country in the past year. Despite their value as art, the bronzes are worth just a few thousand pounds as scrap.

In the most recent theft, a 5ft-tall bronze statue depicting a First World War soldier on a horse was taken from its plinth at St Leonard's Church in Semley, Wiltshire, and driven away in the back of a van.

The £30,000 sculpture by Henry Pegram depicts Lt George Armstrong of the Sherwood Foresters Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire Regiment. It was stolen on the evening of Saturday 27 May after thieves cut the statue from the plinth.

The statue is the second to be stolen in a week. On Saturday 20 May, a 5ft bronze statue created in memory of a First World War veteran was stolen from St Mary's Church in Chedzoy, Somerset.

The statue - valued at £15,000 - was erected in 1950 to mark the resting place of Sydney Mason Collins, who died four years earlier. Collins served with the Signals Corps on the Western Front in France during the war. He had ancestors in the village of Chedzoy and requested that his body be laid to rest there when he died.

Malcolm Friend, the churchwarden, said: "The statue was 5ft tall and on top of a plinth of similar height. It was a fairly substantial thing and not something that could just be taken away easily."

Dave Taylor, a spokesman for Wiltshire Police, appealed for the return of the Pegram statue, saying it was of "international importance".

He said: "We are looking into all options as to why this statue has been taken. We are investigating the possibility that the two thefts are linked and that other churches may be targeted. We are liaising with Avon and Somerset Police to find both statues."

He added: "It is likely that we will also be talking to other forces where bronze statutes have be taken."

The most famous sculpture taken in recent thefts was Henry Moore's Reclining Figure, which was stolen from the Henry Moore Foundation near Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, on 15 December.

Thieves hoisted it on to a flatbed lorry as it stood in a courtyard awaiting repositioning. The lorry was found, but the artwork, made in 1969-1970, was not.

Despite an intensive police investigation that has included examining several scrap metal yards, the statue has yet to be recovered. On the open market, it would fetch about £5,000 for the metal. Detectives have also considered whether the statue was taken abroad or is being kept hidden until the investigation has quietened down.

In January a sculpture by the late British artist Lynn Chadwick was stolen, almost certainly to melt down for scrap.

The 7ft tall figure, one of three which make up the £600,000 sculpture The Watchers, was stolen on the night of 10 January from outside Downshire House, in the grounds of Roehampton University in south-west London. It was one of only three such pieces in the world. The others are in Loughborough University, Leicestershire, and Denmark.

To remove part of the sculpture thieves carved through the legs of one of the three giant abstract figures and carried it off during the night. Police said that it would have taken "at least eight people" to lift it.