SINGAPORE (Reuters) - The headless body of a Ukrainian poet, night-time raids on railway depots and the theft of priceless works of art. The ingredients of a Cold War thriller?
No, they are the latest victims of a global crime spree targeting metal sculptures, copper cables and even playground slides, as thieves take advantage of soaring metals prices to make a fast buck.
“We are witnessing a real pillage of companies’ assets,” Colonel Philippe Schneider, who heads a French police division that specializes in countering such crime, told reporters in January.
“Everything can be stolen, everything can be sold -- cables, drain covers, sculptures,” Schneider said. “We even had 300 kilograms of tweezers stolen.”
Thefts of metal are not a new phenomenon. The lead roofs of English churches and monasteries were plundered by Henry VIII in the 16th Century and are still a popular target for thieves.
Ecclesiastical Insurance which insures 97 percent of Church of England churches said it paid out 750,000 pounds ($1.45 million) against thefts of church metals -- mostly lead -- in 2006, from virtually nothing in 2005.
The price of lead on the London Metal Exchange, the world’s largest non-ferrous metals market has more than doubled since mid-2005 to a record $1,955 a ton in late February.
Other metals including copper, aluminum and nickel have risen even further, touching record highs in 2006 and 2007 as demand from countries like China and India overwhelmed smelters’ ability to churn out metal, driving up scrap prices.
“We in the industry see a trend that when commodity prices rise, thefts increase,” said Bryan McGannon of the U.S.-based Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries.
“Thefts of aluminum and copper are the most widely reported and although there are no national data, police departments across the country are saying that there has been a sharp increase in reports.”
The rise in metals thefts appears to coincide with the market prices for the metals concerned. New York State police said copper thefts peaked in mid-2006 around about when copper prices also peaked at $8,800 a ton. They have fallen steadily since.
“We’ve had (thefts of) coils of copper, coils of different types of wire from construction sites, or different types of wire used in other applications like communication companies,” Sgt. Kern Swoboda, a spokesman for New York State Police said:
In the United Kingdom, British Transport Police arrested three men in the northeast of England in January for stealing 2-½ miles of railway cable with a value of 150,000 pounds.
But British robbers do not confine themselves to copper cable and piping, but also target stainless steel and aluminum beer kegs which cost up to 50-60 pounds each. Weighty works of arts are also not immune.
Kegwatch, an industry group that tracks down beer-barrel bandits, estimates that almost 500,000 kegs are stolen annually with a value of 20-25 million pounds.
“There is no doubt that thefts of beer kegs and casks have risen over the past 2-½ years. The biggest reason for this is the rise in metals prices,” Kegwatch chairman Dave Hopwood, said.
Britain has also seen a series of robberies of bronze sculptures including one by Lynn Chadwick valued at 600,000 pounds and another by Henry Moore, worth as much as 10 million pounds as a work of art and just a few thousand pounds as scrap.
“It would be difficult to sell a Henry Moore as piece of art as its provenance would be dubious. That suggests that it was more likely stolen for its metal value,” a Scotland Yard spokesman said. Neither piece has been recovered.
Unlike their British counterparts, Canadian law enforcement have had some luck catching thieves with an eye for valuable bronze -- an alloy of copper, tin and other metals.
In January, Toronto police recovered the head of the 3-meter (10-foot), two-ton likeness of a Ukrainian poet, but were still searching for the rest of statue, while in December, a 250 kg (550 lb) copper statue of Greek mythological figure Atlas was stolen from outside a metal fabricating company in Toronto.
That statue was later recovered and a man was charged.
In Japan, thieves have targeted children’s slides, incense holders from cemeteries and even the roof of a public toilet.
Last year, there were about 5,700 such robberies in Japan causing damages worth some 2 billion yen ($17.06 million), and the number of cases is rising.
Singapore, where a strict penal system discourages any kind of law breaking, has also fallen victim to thefts of drain covers, prayer urns, copper cables and other metal items, which have doubled at a time when the overall crime rate in the city-state dropped 10 percent.
Even in Chile, the world’s largest copper producer, Telefonica Chile said incidents of cable theft had trebled to about 800 per month, from 250 per month at the beginning of 2006 and would cost the company at least $10 million.
In addition to base metals, cast iron manhole covers are disappearing from cities at an astonishing rate. Local media report some 24,000 from Shanghai, 10,000 in Bogota, and over 10,000 in Calcutta went missing last year.
Police are looking into the thefts.
Additional reporting by Carole Vaporean in New York