By Poly Pantelides
THE THEFT this week of metal art works collectively valued at €340,000 and probably stolen for scrap metal has underlined once again the continued problem of such thefts which range from precious church items to scaffolding.
There are signs, however, that new regulations covering the sale of metal items are working, to a certain extent at least.
Garo Keheyan, head of the Pharos Arts Foundation, told police this week thieves had stolen the art works from one of the foundation’s warehouses in Nicosia.
The stolen items included metal tables and a wrought-iron door by respected British artist Richard Wentworth, each valued at €20,000 each. Ironically, these objects had originally been fashioned from mostly scrap metal, and scrap metal is believed to be the reason for the theft.
To get to the Pharos Arts Foundation warehouse on Nicosia’s Green Line, the thieves smashed a hole in the wall at the back of the building, removing and stealing sheets of corrugated iron from the roof, along with the art works.
Though police investigations are as yet inconclusive, scrap metal trading is a likely motive. If scrap metal merchants accept the thieves’ haul, then the objects will soon be squished out of recognition.
The Pharos’ theft is just the latest in a spate of burglaries of precious metal objects. Churches have become a special target, with church committee members regularly reporting the theft of items such as silver chalices and crosses.
The thefts even prompted Paphos Bishop Georgios to issue a plea to the public last week to help guard churches.
“People are exasperated; this is a provocation against everything they hold sacred,” he said.
Last year the Sunday Mail reported on the spiralling number of metal thefts, from solar heaters, manhole covers, metal supports for scaffolding, copper wires, aluminium doors and windows, and even (back in 2011) debris from the naval base explosion at Mari.
According to police however, scrap metal thefts have actually tapered off as a result of new regulations brought in this year.
Trading in scrap or precious metals is regulated by various authorities to prevent fencing of stolen goods. New regulations mean gold and silver dealers must now be registered and traders must photograph purchases and keep sellers’ photos and identification data for at least a year.
Scrap metal dealers may now only buy from licensed holders, with both police and the environment department (because of waste disposal regulations) carrying out checks.
Yet trading in scrap metal can be lucrative. Prices for precious and non-precious metals have been climbing for years, and despite fluctuations (scrap metal prices have fallen somewhat lately), the trend is definitely upwards.
One occasional seller of scrap metals said dealers will indeed now ask probing questions if they suspect they are being sold stolen goods. The source said dealers do get identification data as required by law and had even questioned him when on one occasion he brought in objects that could have been stolen.
“I was able to explain where I got everything, so I was fine,” he said. But he was still able to sell scrap metal even though he is not a licensed trader.
Although the police have long been aware that thieves are drawn to stealing scrap metal, they are more concerned about the rise in thefts of valuable items from churches.
“Of course there are cases [of scrap metal theft]. But our observation of the situation is that there is no spate of thefts as there is in the case of churches,” said police spokesman Andreas Angelides.
In fact, scrap metal dealers are claiming business is down. “With people needing to register to trade, we have observed fewer people come in to sell scrap metal,” said Andros Epiphaniou of the Nicosia-based Epiphaniou Scrap Metals.
A different dealer said that there were far more people selling substantial quantities of scrap metal last year, selling metal that had been gathering dust in warehouses. This year, there are fewer traders and those who sell, sell smaller quantities,” the dealer said.
But others have lost faith in the ability of authorities to implement legislation.
One person in the scrap metal business who wanted to remain anonymous said despite the new regulations, there are simply not enough checks.
“If [authorities] don’t start implementing the law, then the situation will get worse,” he said. “The situation with thefts is unbelievable.”
The source said that because people will steal try to sell scrap metal even if they are not licensed to do so, dealers have the power to make lowball offers.
He described one Chinese woman who had gone to a merchant with small objects and cans worth altogether about seven or eight euros but was given a mere 45 cents.
“What is she going to do?” he asked. “Is she going to go to the police?”