Barbara Hepworth sculpture stolen from London park

Thieves took bronze work, possibly with resale of the metal in mind, after apparently driving into Dulwich park in the night

A heavy bronze Barbara Hepworth sculpture that has been on show in Dulwich park for more than 40 years has been stolen overnight by suspected metal thieves.

Staff at the park in south London were confronted by an empty plinth on Tuesday morning. The thieves apparently drove up to the sculpture after gaining entry by breaking the padlock of the park's Queen Mary gate which leads straight on to the South Circular road.

Rising prices for copper, lead and bronze have triggered a huge increase in metal theft nationally, whether from railways lines, buildings or works of art. The Metropolitan police set up a taskforce to deal with the incidents this week.

The leader of Southwark council, Peter John, asked for anyone with information on the Hepworth sculpture to come forward. "The theft of this important piece of 20th-century public art from Dulwich park is devastating," he said.

"The theft of public art and metal is becoming a sickening epidemic. I would ask the Met police and their metal-theft taskforce to investigate this theft as a matter of urgency and would ask anyone with any information about the whereabouts of the sculpture to contact us or the police."

Trevor Moore, chairman of Dulwich park friends, said it was a terrible blow. "It has always been there as long as I've been in Dulwich," he said. "It's just one of those things which is always there as you wander past and you feel like you've had a finger chopped off, in all honesty."

The work, one of six casts called Two Forms (Divided Circle), made in 1969, sat in a gladed area in the middle of the park where there is no CCTV.

"They must have had a major industrial buzz saw of some sort to hack it off," Moore said. "We've always been saying that it's a miracle that it's never had graffiti or been despoiled in any way.

"It was the only major sculpture in the park. Visitors to Dulwich Picture Gallery, which is only a stone's throw from the park, used to come into the park to see the Hepworth because it is such a famous piece."

The theft of the two-metre high sculpture must have taken a big effort but the chances of it being sold on as a piece of art would appear to be remote.

Council chiefs were offering a £1,000 reward for information leading to the arrest and conviction of the thieves.

The theft comes a month after a bronze statue of the social reformer Dr Alfred Salter was stolen from Rotherhithe, also in Southwark. The statue, called Dr Salter's Daydream and valued at £17,500, was erected in 1991 and showed the campaigner in his old age sitting on a bench and waving to his daughter Joyce and her cat.

It was confirmed in 2009 that a two-tonne Henry Moore sculpture stolen from Much Hadham in Hertfordshire in 2005 was melted, possibly for no more than £1,500.

The Dulwich Hepworth was acquired by the Greater London council in 1970 and transferred into the ownership of Southwark council when the GLC was abolished.

Hepworth once said of the work produced in the late 1960s: "You can climb through the Divided Circle – you don't need to do it physically to experience it."


Mark Brown, arts correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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