The very act of stealing a major work of art is audacious in itself, but many criminals choose to take their nefarious deeds to a different level entirely.
But, beyond these cunning criminals, it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to plan a theft that relies purely on brute force—after all, making a quick getaway is out of the question when you’re saddled with a giant crane and thousands of pounds of ill-begotten goods.
That didn’t stop a trio of thieves in the U.K. who set their sights on Henry Moore’s two-ton, 111-foot long bronze Reclining Figure that was enjoying its repose on the 72-acre estate of the Henry Moore Foundation.
In the middle of a chilly December night in 2005, three men drove onto the foundation’s property, lifted the substantial lady into the back of their stolen truck using a crane, and drove off into the dark. They didn’t go wholly undetected—their transgression was captured by security cameras—but that was the only thing that was caught that dark night. The men—and the nude—have never been seen again.
“We are gobsmacked, extremely upset and also disappointed that someone would steal it,” Gareth Spence, a spokesperson for the foundation at the time, told BBC News.
The theft of the 1969 Reclining Figure was most likely an early case of what would become something of an epidemic in the U.K. Starting in 2005, copper and bronze prices soared, and criminals with dreams of getting rich quick began to scoop up any of the material they could get their hands on.
What was formerly isolated cases of petty larceny became a tsunami of thefts that targeted everything from the copper cables used in railroad signaling systems and copper pipes from old buildings to iron manhole covers and even the bronze propellers off of a royal yacht.
The more brazen of the thieves realized there was another large source of precious metals, ones that were often sitting out in plain sight: the large-scale bronze sculptures created by some of the country’s finest artists.
“A string of theft in 2005 of objects, from artworks to garden ornaments, were disappearing from across England. The theme was that the objects were made of bronze or copper, the prices for which had quadrupled in the preceding months due to a shortage emerging from mines, particularly in China,” a 2010 blog post by the Association for Research Into Crimes Against Art explained. “This rash of thefts continued, and in locations as remote as Slovenia bronze objects and sculptures were stolen, only to be found sliced into segments, destined for the smelter.
A quick payday was reason enough for the metal criminals to take the risk, but, at least in the case of the Henry Moore piece, the robbers didn’t even make pennies on the dollar compared to the art’s true value. Moore’s 1969 Reclining Figure was worth nearly $4 million when it was stolen in 2005; authorities believe it was sold to metal dealers for a measly $2,000.
When the theft was first discovered the next morning, many initially thought it was a made-for-hire job—a robbery that was commissioned to target a specific piece on behalf of a wealthy art patron who was willing to go to nefarious lengths to attain a beloved work.
But it quickly became apparent that the motivations of the thieves may not have been so culturally high-minded. A years-long investigation into the case—aided by a tip from former art thief Jimmy Johnson—led Scotland Yard to believe that the sculpture had been stolen, most likely by a trio of Travelers, to sell for scrap metal.
They now suspect that Reclining Figure was carted away to a scrapyard in Dagenham, then was transferred to a scrapyard in Essex, before it was sent to China via Rotterdam. In China, Henry Moore’s masterpiece was most likely melted down and used as the raw material in electrical components (which makes you wonder whether there may once have been a piece of a Henry Moore lying around your house somewhere).
Since the identities of the thieves have never been discovered, questions remain as to why the culprits took the sculpture and whether or not they knew the value and significance of the piece they were nicking.
The Reclining Figure isn’t the first Henry Moore to disappear. Other works including his 1965 The Sundial (later recovered) and Standing Figure (1950)—taken from a sculpture park in Scotland in 2013 and still missing—have become the target of thieves over the last two decades.
Other than the ubiquity of Henry Moore’s statues—and, of course, their valuable raw material—it probably didn’t help that Moore was a huge proponent of placing his works out in the open and installing them on public sites where everyone could have the chance to enjoy them.
Moore didn’t begin focusing on art until he went to art school at the age of 21 after the end of his service in WWI, but he quickly became renowned for his work in sculpture.
A common theme that he studied for decades was that of the reclining figure. One of his earliest significant attempts at the subject was completed in 1929, when he sculpted a large image of the Aztec Chacmool figure in brown stone, and he would go on to use this subject to explore the limits of sculpture as a form of artistic expression.
“The vital thing is to have a subject that allows you to try out all kinds of formal ideas, just as Cézanne did in his ‘Bathers’ series,” the artist once said. “In my case it is the reclining figure that provides those chances.”
By 1969, when he created the Reclining Figure that would be stolen from the foundation in 2005, he had achieved a level of international fame and had perfected the art form.
“The reclining figure as defined by Henry Moore has many guises, but it is perhaps above all as a warrior-Venus that the female figure most often presents herself,” John Russell wrote in a 1986 New York Times obituary for the artist. “She is in fact a paragon of endurance, protectiveness, combativity, vigilance and heavy-limbed physical beauty. Mr. Moore’s ideal was a big woman, built to last and brimful of character, and he never tired of portraying her.”
The Reclining Figure may have provided Moore with the chance to reach great heights in sculpture, but, one December night in 2005, it offered a group of thieves a chance of a different sort when they encountered a stunning 11-foot long, 4,000-pound bronze beauty and decided to pull off one of the more ambitious art heists in recent memory.