Now copper thieves are plundering art collections
Many artworks made from recyclable material have become targets for thieves
Thieves are plundering South Africa’s prized bronze and copper collectables to sell as scrap to unscrupulous dealers.
One of the latest victims is internationally renowned bronze sculptor Jean Doyle, who had one of her works stolen.
“I have had several thefts of my work, the last one being a few weeks back. Four sculptures valued at R350,000 were stolen from my sculpture garden and were doubtlessly sold as scrap to dealers – they were never recovered,” the Cape Town based artist said.
Doyle believes art thieves are difficult to catch.
“I do think that it is very difficult to apprehend these thieves as they appear to be organised and remove bronze rapidly and cut them up for delivery to scrap dealers.
“The police need to be alerted by scrap dealers when suspicious hauls of bronze are offered for purchase. It is possible that dealers are party to this and should come under police surveillance,” Doyle added.
The South African Heritage Resources Agency (Sahra) – a government body tasked with identifying and managing South Africa’s heritage objects – is working closely with the police on a few cases of bronze thefts that were reported to it.“We have a couple of cases [of bronze works] which were reported to us and we are working closely with the SAPS.
“Due to the difficulties with the monitoring of heritage-related crime the fate of these stolen objects cannot be reported on with any certainty,” said Sahra spokesman Thomas Khakhu.
Sahra has 261 objects on its stolen object listing,“varying in type across the entire gamut of heritage objects protected under the National Heritage Resources Act.
“We constantly inform museums to report any theft to the police and to us. Based on the instances that have been reported to Sahra, the majority of reported instances occur Gauteng, followed by the Western Cape,”said Khakhu.
Specialist insurer Artinsure has seen a spike in the theft of these and other artworks – including an Irma Stern, an artwork by struggle-era artist George Pemba and a portrait of Donald Trump – in the last two years.
It has over 300 pieces listed as missing, stolen mostly from private homes and galleries on its art theft register.Artinsure CEO Gordon Massie said because many artworks were made from recyclable material including bronze, copper and other metals, they have become targets for thieves.
“Those works are being stolen from public and private institutions and homes. They are stolen not because of the aesthetic nature of the work, but for the money the scrap dealers would give them,” Massie added.
“The indications are the thefts are targeted. The movement of stolen artwork is difficult. We’re confident that at some stages we will recover these works but it will just take alot of time and resource.”
Massie said art theft in South Africa was not a priority for police.
“But we have collaborated with them previously and had positive results together.”
Massie said the stolen artworks on the register ranged from R50,000 to several million.
“There is a serious amount of money being stolen in artwork. We are seeing an increase in awareness among South African art owners that there is a risk, not only with theft, but also damage. They are becoming quite significant assets and worth protecting,” he said.
SAPS spokesman Brigadier Vishnu Naidoo didn't respond to queries.