April 24, 2008
"That's where the money is," answered the fellow in the 1930s when asked why he robbed banks.
Now the money is everywhere: in parks, on roofs, in church organs, in cemeteries. And the robberies gather pace.
What is being taken is metal, and to understand why, you have to look to the economic explosion in Asia. Scrap metal prices have exploded as a consequence of new demand. Where a ton of scrap steel cost roughly $150 five years ago, it's now worth almost three times that. The same price explosion goes for copper, nickel, tin and lead.
New demand creates new entrepreneurs. They are both persistent and inventive.
Consider this: last year in England there were 2,100 insurance claims for theft from churches or, to be more precise, from church roofs. That's an average of 44 thefts a week. What was being stolen was lead. The stuff is now worth more than $2,000 a tonne in Europe.
The claims totalled almost $20 million, according to a body called Ecclesiastical Insurance. One church was hit eight times in the past year. Two years earlier, claims for lead theft from church roofs totaled fewer than 100.
Desperate rectors take desperate action. One, in an ironic update on the boulder rolled away from Christ's tomb by the angels on Easter Sunday, has rolled boulders onto the drive in front of his church to try to keep thieves' vehicles as far from the valuable metal as possible.
A growing concern across Europe
We turn to the Police Gazette to learn that metal theft is the fastest-growing crime in the United Kingdom.
Meanwhile, in Germany, one persistent and hard-working thief near Frankfurt spent months carting away 6.5 tons of organ pipes. They were in a warehouse belonging to a company that specializes in repairing church organs. Persistent and hard-working, yes; smart, no. He was caught, tried and convicted of pipe organ theft.
The cemeteries fare no better. One in Berlin reported the recent loss of several bronze vases and candelabras, while in Cologne thieves made off with 16 bronze Madonnas.
Next door in the Czech Republic, crooked metal merchants have just committed a colossal act of sacrilege at a Holocaust memorial at the Theresienstadt concentration camp near Prague. They made off with more than 1,000 bronze plaques commemorating Jewish victims of the Nazis. The Czech police found many of the plaques — in a scrap metal yard in the north of the country.
Back in England, if churches aren't sacred, then neither is art. Thieves drove onto the grounds of Roehampton University in London and stole a bronze sculpture estimated to be worth $1.2 million. A university official said it would have taken at least eight people to carry it off. The sculpture was entitled 'The Watchers,' but there were apparently no watchers of this crime.
The enormity of that theft paled in comparison to the heist of a Henry Moore sculpture weighing two tonnes a few weeks earlier. Its art value is estimated at $6 million. It was stolen from the Henry Moore foundation itself. This theft was watched, at least by a CCTV camera that saw two vehicles, one of them a flatbed truck equipped with a crane, drive onto the grounds. Two men, one wearing a baseball cap, then loaded the bronze figure onto the truck and drove away. They weren't caught. Police believe the pieces were melted down and the copper in the bronze alloy sold – for a fraction of the value of the sculpture.
"The people perpetrating these crimes appear to have no appreciation of, or respect for, the objects they are stealing." These were the frustrated words of Vernon Rapley of the Metropolitan Police of London.
Karl Marx would dismiss this as a bourgeois obsession with what he called "commodity fetishism." The commodity in this case is the sculpture; its value as a fetish accounts, in Marxist analysis, for its fantastic price as a piece of art. How else to account for its commercial value? Marx toiled for years on this vexed question in Das Kapital, and came up with the concept of "surplus value." He was particularly intrigued by, and waxed almost poetic over, commodity fetishism.
"A commodity appears at first sight, a very trivial thing, and easily understood. Its analysis shows that it is, in reality, a very queer thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties."
Theological niceties which he then applies to a humble table: "The form of wood, for instance, is altered by making a table out of it. Yet, for all that the table continues to be that common, every-day thing, wood. But, so soon as it steps forth as a commodity, it is changed into something transcendent. It not only stands with its feet on the ground, but, in relation to all other commodities, it stands on its head, and evolves out of its wooden brain grotesque ideas, far more wonderful than if it were to dance of its own accord."
The anti-bourgeois economist and political agitator might even have applauded the theft and probable melting-down of the sculptures as a blow against commodity fetishism. It could be termed, to turn another economic concept on its head like Marx's table, a form of "reverse conspicuous consumption."
Meanwhile, for bourgeois defenders of metal and private property, there are occasional examples of rough justice. We go again to the Czech Republic where enterprising thieves saw a potential payday in an abandoned factory. They began cutting through the steel beams. Unfortunately they were holding up the roof. Two of the metal robbers were killed.
Crushed by a commodity, or perhaps flattened by a fetish.