Artworks latest target for metal thieves in Wales

Brunel statue The statue disappeared in the middle of the night

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Two statues are stolen from public places in Wales within weeks of each other, one from a seafront plinth in Pembrokeshire, the other from a park near Cardiff city centre.

The 8ft (2.4m) statue of Isambard Kingdom Brunel was taken from Neyland during the early hours of Monday morning.

A similar night-time raid saw a statue of a young boy by Victorian sculptor Sir William Goscombe John cut from its base in Thompson Park, Canton, in Cardiff, early on 31 July.

Coincidence? Or has metal become the new target item for a certain organised - and well-equipped - type of thief?

Councils and police forces from around Wales over the past year have reported a rise in the number of metal thefts from public places, including drain covers from roads, and private property, including church roofs and signalling cable from railways.

In February, North Wales Police reported the number of metal thefts in its area had risen each year since 2005, although not the total volume of metal.

Some reports have suggested a rise in metal prices might be fuelling such thefts, but according to John Parry, of the London Metal Exchange, this is not the case at present for scrap metal, which is sadly what these works of art, along with the more prosaic drain covers, are destined to become.

Mr Parry said prices always fluctuated, but current levels were relatively low, and had been much higher 18 months ago.

Of the stolen bronze Brunel statue, he said the scrap value would in any case be far, far lower than the £30,000 price tag when it was erected in 1999.

"The valuable metal in it would be copper, although in alloy form. There hasn't been anything going on with copper prices," he explained.

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If we identify any scrap metals which we thought were suspicious, we report that back to the police”

End Quote John Wheadon Environment Agency Wales

"The scrap value of copper is about £5,000 per tonne, so if the statue was hollow, without knowing its exact weight, the scrap value is probably around £1,500 to £2,000."

He said disposing of something recognisable like a statue, particularly if it had been in the news, would be very difficult.

"They could cut it up into small lumps so it doesn't look like what it was. It's still quite hard - it only has to have a bit of hand, or face or leg left on it to give it away," he said.

He said anyone stealing something of that size in copper would be unlikely to have the equipment to melt it down themselves, as copper, with its high melting point, would require a furnace, unlike something like lead which could be melted at much lower temperatures.

"It's a decent lump of scrap but it would be hard to shift," he said. "You'd have to have some fairly unscrupulous metal yard who would melt it down for them."

Stolen statue 'Joyance' was erected in Thompson Park in 1899

Mr Parry surmised that rather than metal prices fuelling the thefts, it was more likely to be a general rise in criminality in the region.

John Wheadon from Environment Agency Wales concurs with this view, which he thinks is attributable to the recession and people being in more desperate circumstances.

Environment Agency Wales has the responsibility for licensing and regulating those who carry waste commercially with a view to making a profit, and scrap metal sites or processing sites.

"We regulate these locations through site inspections for example. If we identify any scrap metals which we thought were suspicious, we report that back to the police," he said.

They also work with officers carrying out spot checks on waste carriers at roadblocks on the motorway and main arteries to ensure everything they are carrying is licensed.

'Minority of people'

"In the current climate, with the jobs front being more challenging, people might be tempted to go into that type of business [carrying illegal metals]," he said.

"Also, businesses might not be as thorough as they were in making sure they are using only licensed waste carriers if they are looking to save money and take a cheaper quote.

"I don't want to tar everybody with the same brush - we are talking about a minority of people here."

Mr Wheadon added he had been very angry when he heard about the statue in Thompson Park being stolen.

"The price of it as scrap metal is a few hundred pounds to £1,000, but the price in terms of its history to the city - you can't put a price on it as a piece of art," he said.

"It's sad it will never be seen again."

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