Monday, November 14, 2011

From Sculpture to Scrap: The Theft of America’s Copper Heritage

Bronze, a mixture of copper and tin,
is found in many statues and plaques,
which are vulnerable to copper thieves.
Frederic Remington, ''The Bronco Buster,"
given to the Lyndon B. Johnson Library.
Public domain image.

Copper theft continues to run rampant throughout the country. Museums, cultural institutions, churches, art galleries, universities, and more have been impacted by the great raid on copper and bronze sculpture and plaques. That is because the price of copper is high, largely driven up by rapid industrial development in China and India.

The recent press report of a sword swiped from a copper statue located at Abraham Lincoln’s tomb site in Springfield, Illinois has become common over the last several years. And thieves may be less interested in the art and more interested in the metal’s melted value.

Many states have laws that regulate scrap metal recyclers so that law enforcement can uncover scrap metal crimes. In New Hampshire, Chapter 322 of the Revised Statutes Annotated mandates junk and scrap metal dealers to be licensed, requires photo identification from person’s turning in metal for scrap, and permits law enforcement access to business records. Maine just announced its intention to stiffen regulations. Last week legislation moved forward in Augusta that would have scrap metal dealers check photo identification and vehicle information for anyone selling scrap metal, place a 72 hour delay on processing the metal, and have payments sent by check to a physical address. Penalties for noncompliance could include a license suspension for scrap metal processors.

Protecting outdoor statuary from copper theft may not be easy, but contacting a security consultant for a site assessment should be a first step for any cultural institution. Security options can then be considered in light of the actual risks and the institution’s budget.  Members of the nonprofit International Foundation for Cultural Property Protection may be able to help.

If a theft occurs, it should be reported to the local police immediately. Be sure to tell the police about Scrap Theft Alert, where law enforcement can report a theft to the membership of the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.