Stealing Art for Copper

Sedona, AZ – (SFX: sneak up bird, outdoor ambi)
A few weeks ago sculptor John Waddell took some out of town guests on a tour of a sculpture garden on his ranch south of Sedona. He led them to the back of the rocky mesa top, where a grouping of the figurative, bronze nudes for which Waddell is best known was supposed to be standing.

I looked at the place where they were, and it was hard for me to imagine that they weren't there. I thought that I was having an illusion of some kind, but the 8 over life size figures weighing at least 3000 pounds, probably more, were gone.

The pieces, called The Gathering, are worth more than a half million dollars as art. The 86 year old Waddell suspects the thieves stole them for the value of their copper, probably not more than 4 or 5 thousand dollars. But it's not the money that makes him angry.

Those 8 figures represented 8 years of work. ***2:20 it's a bite out of one's life I have molds for all but one of those figures, but whether they'll ever be cast again I don't know, it's an expensive process, but it's also a time consuming process, and at my age, every moment is important, having these works taken is an insult.

Waddell is the latest high-profile sculptor to have his work pilfered. (SFX: fade out ambi) In late 2005 thieves with a crane and flatbed truck stole a massive and iconic Henry Moore sculpture worth as much as 18 million dollars. It was one of about 20 sculptures stolen in England in a six month span. Then, this past December thieves broke into the New Orleans studio of MacArthur genius fellow John T. Scott and made off with several bronzes. Beth Kocher is an art historian with the Art Loss Register, an international organization that tracks stolen art. She says a year ago she heard about a sculpture theft maybe once a month.

And now it seems almost every week something is reported, whether it be a small public sculpture taken from a park to some of the larger thefts like the most recent one in Arizona.

When John Waddell first started sculpting, copper cost 30 cents a pound. Now it's up near three dollars. The reasons, says Chuck Carr, spokesman for the Institute of scrap recycling Industries, are labor issues at overseas mines, a volatile market and skyrocketing demand in China and India. He's heard of thieves going to foolish lengths for a spool of copper wire.

There have been several cases around the country of people being electrocuted in attempts to steal wire from live electric sites, in a school here in Washington DC and electrical transformers in nearly every state in the country over the last year.

Carr points out that copper retains as much as 90 percent of its value when it's melted down. Bronze is an alloy made of copper and tin, which is why thieves are going after bronze sculptures.

In January a theft outside Toronto lent credence to the theory that sculptures are being stolen by metal, and not art thieves. A two-ton statue of Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko was ripped off its base. The poet's head was later found at a nearby smelter. The thieves initially duped the recycler by telling him the city had taken down the monument. Chuck Carr says it's sometimes tough to tell the difference between stolen and legitimate material.

A sculpture may be chopped into small pieces before it's received at the yard. By the time it reaches us it doesn't resemble materials that were originally stolen.

(SFX: sneak up birds, outdoor ambi)

Back in Sedona, John Waddell is replacing the cattle guard into his property with a locked gate. He's hoisted the remaining sculptures out of the garden and down next to his house. The scene is surreal, with many of the beautiful figures lying scattered on their backs in the red earth. The last few weeks have Waddell pondering what's next.

Of course I'm making these works for my contemporaries, but in reality, there's a chance I could communicate with someone maybe 600 years from now, that is one of the drives that I have.

Waddell insists he will continue creating sculptures; and hopes to see them displayed in public. But now the air of permanence surrounding these ornately crafted, thousand pound bronzes, seems a bit more fragile.

For Arizona Public Radio, I'm Daniel Kraker in Flagstaff.