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One of a number of bronze sculptures stolen from the Johannesburg Art Gallery is worth about US$16,000 ($20,000). Curators fear thieves sold it to a scrap dealer for a mere US$250.
Prices for metals with industrial uses such as copper - the main component in bronze - have been booming. And as the stolen bronzes fail to turn up at auction houses, galleries can only fear the worst.
"I understand that art will be stolen," said Noah Charney, who founded a think tank called the Association for Research into Crimes Against Art.
"But I get very upset when art is destroyed ... that is an irrevocable attack on beauty, culture and civilisation."
Bronze sculptures are the latest target in South Africa: days before U2 played a stadium in Johannesburg earlier this year, officials blamed copper thieves for power problems at the venue. Cable theft has led to service interruptions on the Gautrain, a sleek new South African light rail service.
At the Johannesburg Art Gallery, home to Picassos, van Goghs and Rodins, thieves stole a figure of a woman in mourning by South African master sculptor Sydney Kumalo.
The Kumalo is one of four bronzes taken in a robbery in January and another in September at the city-owned gallery.
A small bronze titled A chair, a boat and a vase by South African sculptor Barend De Wet was wrenched from the facade of the national art museum in Cape Town in May.
"There's a lot of very sophisticated [security] systems internationally that, unfortunately, we just can't afford," said Antoinette Murdoch, chief curator of the Johannesburg Art Gallery.
Murdoch said the city had promised her 1 million rand (about $158,740) to upgrade security, and she was seeking more from donors.
Bernard Maguire, spokesman for the Metal Recyclers Association, said his industry group alerts scrap dealers across South Africa when a theft, whether of copper wire or a bronze statue, is reported.
But he said some items were cut up before they even reached dealers.
South Africa, known for its high rates of murder and other violent crimes, is only the latest country where copper thieves are targeting art.
In one stunning case in 2005, thieves took a two-tonne, US$5.2 million bronze by English sculpture Henry Moore from the artist's estate north of London.
Police, saying Reclining Figure was too well known to have been sold on the art market, said the thieves may have stolen the work to melt it down and sell it for a fraction of its value as scrap.
The phenomenon also has been seen in Latin America, where vandals in Brazil sawed off the arms of a bronze statue of soccer legend Pele in 2007.
By: Donna Bryson