A huge bronze statue by Henry Moore, worth more than £3m and hailed by art historians as of "exceptional" importance, has been stolen and, police fear, may be melted down and sold for scrap.
The massive modernist artwork, entitled A Reclining Figure, was taken from the Henry Moore Foundation sculpture park at Much Hadham, Hertfordshire, late on Thursday night.
Police believe a crane was used to hoist the 11ft by 8ft, two-ton statue on to a Mercedes flat-bed lorry. Three men are being sought, having been captured on security cameras.
A Reclining Figure was created by Moore, widely seen as one of the 20th century's greatest sculptors, late in his career. Born in Yorkshire in 1898 to a mining family, Moore helped to heal the rift between popular and "intellectual" art. He died in 1986 - feted by the media, honoured by the establishment and loved by the public - leaving an extraordinary body of work comprising hundreds of pieces, in public and private collections worldwide.
Some 47 works by Moore are currently listed on the authoritative Art Loss Register as stolen and unrecovered - most of them taken in the past 20 years. None, however, is the size of A Reclining Figure.
A new record price was set for a Moore work last month when Mother and Child, sold for £1.07m at Bonhams auctioneers in London. Rising auction prices can make an artist's work especially attractive to thieves. Last week, in the Botanic Gardens, Wellington, New Zealand, a 24-hour guard was placed on another enormous Moore bronze - Inner Form, weighing 1.5 tons and also worth around £3m - after a tip-off that it was about to be stolen.
In May 1997, a Moore sculpture of a reclining woman was found in a Sainsbury's plastic bag when police stopped a London taxi during a routine anti-terrorist check.
The motive for the latest theft is unclear. Police have suggested that the statue may have been taken solely for its scrap metal value, although some art experts disagree.
"This is not stolen to order," said Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register. "Of all the cases we've ever investigated, only two out of around 3,000 were stolen for people to keep and enjoy. As for being stolen for scrap value, even bronze doesn't have that high a scrap value."
Shipment abroad, says Mr Radcliffe, is the most likely fate. "Some day, somebody might buy it without suspecting it's been stolen. This work may well be worth millions, but the people who stole it may get only £2,000 or £3,000 for it."
Whatever its commercial value, its worth to the art world is beyond calculation.Reuse content