Sculpture theft from Vancouver park raises insurance worries

The theft of a popular sculpture from a Vancouver park is raising questions about why the city's public art is not insured.

The theft of a popular sculpture from a Vancouver park is raising questions about why the city's public art is not insured.

Earlier in June, one of the life-sized bronze figures in a popular sculpture called Photo Session by American realist artist J. Seward Johnson Jr. was stolen from a public area of Queen Elizabeth Park, along with four bronze plaques. It is believed the items were stolen for their scrap-metal value.

There are now concerns about how other high-profile works of public art around the city might be protected and insured, such as the bronze figures of explorer Captain Cook, early pioneer Gassy Jack, or four-minute-mile runner Harry Jerome.

But the city doesn't insure any of its public art, according to Bryan Newson, the public art program manager for the city.

"We do have the option of putting insurance on individual art, but we opted not to because historically, there's been little damage. Only one in the history of my time at the city was stolen," said Newson.

"It seemed better, rather than spend money on the premiums, it was better to spend the money on conservation and security," said Newson.

In England, a two-tonne Henry Moore sculpture valued at $5 million was stolen from a London park with a crane in 2005. It wasn't insured.

Some of the public art in Vancouver is equally valuable. A Henry Moore sculpture in Queen Elizabeth Park, for instance, is worth millions. Others, like the three remaining statues in the sculpture entitled Photo Session at the park are valued at close to $100,000 each.

Cost outweighs the risk

But insured or not, if metal thieves get their hands on a bronze statue and police can't recover it, it's likely to be melted down into few thousand dollars worth of scrap metal and be gone forever.

That why Park Board chairwoman Karina Houghton says the cost of insurance outweighs the risk and benefits.

"Obviously, if something is stolen, we can try to get a replacement, but not the original. The premiums are very high, so on a cost benefit ratio basis, the costs the city would incur for insurance would be much higher than the risk," said Houghton.

But the recent theft of the bronze figure from Queen Elizabeth Park may change that, according to Newson.

"I think it will give us pause — time to examine that very question. For valuable works in the city, and I won't name them, perhaps we should look at individual insurance," said Newson.

On Thursday Vancouver police released a surveillance video of a woman they believe was trying to sell one of four bronze plaques stolen from Queen Elizabeth Park along with the statue last month to a local scrap yard.