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Moving statues, 2011-style: and this time it's serious

The last recession famously gave us a weeping Virgin Mary at Ballinspittle, but our latest dip in economic fortunes seems responsible for moving statues of an entirely different kind.

Over a four-week period this spring, no fewer than three large public art sculptures were lifted from their roadside plinths by thieves -- and haven't been seen since.

The thefts have led gardaí to declare that a new type of crime wave is under way in Ireland. Take a good look at the sculptures you drive past today, because they may not be there tomorrow.

The three taken so far, from the Moate interchange along the M6, the M7 at Monasterevin, Co Kildare and on the N72 at Rathmore, Co Kerry are all several metres high, weigh more than a tonne and, crucially, are made from bronze.

Romantics might like to think of the pieces being secreted away by poverty-stricken art lovers wanting to enhance their private collections, but the truth is likely to be far more prosaic.

With prices for bronze, stainless steel and copper at an all-time high due to massive undersupply, it's doubtful whether the three sculptures even exist any more.

Instead, they're likely to have been hacked apart a short distance from where they stood and the raw materials transported abroad. Although the pieces cost well in excess of €100,000 to commission, their scrap value is estimated at just a few thousand euro.

For the artists who slaved over them, the county councils who funded them and the public who'd become used to them, it's a headache.

While almost all roadside sculptures are put in place with a crane, it's unlikely that those seeking to remove them would have the resources or gall to use one. Instead they physically roll them under cover of darkness.

"Let's just say there are easier things to steal," said a Garda source connected with the investigation of the Moate theft.

"For the amount of effort these fellas put in, it's not a big return. It's not like slipping something in your pocket in a shop."

The sculpture stolen at Moate depicted the historical figure of Gráinne Óg, who ruled over the area as a Brehan judge in ancient times and its plinth alone was over three metres high.

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Created by sculptor Ann Meldon Hugh from Meath, she says she's amazed that anyone had the cheek or wherewithal to pinch it. "I thought she was safe as houses based on the fact that she was so enormous," she says.

"I find that very upsetting that it's completely destroyed and gone."

One of the most audacious thefts of public sculpture ever took place in Britain six years ago and involved the disappearance of a two-tonne Henry Moore sculpture worth €4m.

Police concluded that the 'Reclining Figure' sculpture stolen from a park was melted down and sold for less than €2,000.

Gardaí believe scrap metal traders are also behind the recent thefts including that of 'The Hitchhiker' on the M7 near Monasterevin in Kildare.

Sculptor Willie Malone, responsible for the two-metre statue, told the Kildare Nationalist he was incredibly upset by the disappearance of his creation.

"I'd have loved for my great grandchildren to bring their kids along and say, 'look, your great-great-grandad did that'."

Erected in 2005, the sculpture cost €54,000 to produce and gardaí estimate it would only be worth less than €5,000 if sold for scrap.

Ahead of the pack and ever vigilant, New Ross Town Council does not intend to let its prized statue of John F Kennedy become the next victim of this peculiar crime wave.

The town clerk, David Minogue, has confirmed that money has been found to erect a new CCTV camera to monitor the piece, which commemorates the late US president's visit to the town in 1963.

"We felt we had to provide additional security when we heard of similar pieces of public art being stolen," said Mr Minogue.

There are more than 700 pieces of public art on the roadside in Ireland, according to a recent book on the subject. And security is lax.

Apart from warning the public to be vigilant and the possible installation of cameras, there appears to be little to be done to stop the thieves.

While gardaí have no corresponding figures here, British police report a 500% increase in the theft of public art sculptures since 2005.

Although no public art has yet been stolen, the county's arts officer, Fergus Kennedy, has warned everybody to be on the lookout.

"Only by the public taking ownership and adopting these sculptures as their own can we ensure their safety. If everybody is constantly vigilant, we can stop this," he says.

"The price of metals may be at an all-time high, but the risk for thieves of stealing these pieces is hugely disproportionate.

"They may only get €1,500 for their troubles but if caught, they'll serve a sentence for stealing something far more expensive.

"The whole thing isn't worth it, as soon as they realise that, the better."

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