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PopAnth — Hot Buttered Humanity
Popular anthropology for everyone.

The mentality of metal theft

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Thieves Beware! Photo by Luke Bennett
Thieves Beware! Photo by Luke Bennett

The theft of metal from war memorials, churches and infrastructure is estimated to cost the UK over £700 million per year, to the horror of citizens who especially decry the damage done to sacred spaces and disruption to transport and power networks.

But this cost doesn't represent the profit that the thieves make: it is the cost of repairing the damage. I'm told that some of the items that are stolen, such as brass memorial plaques, are actually worth little, and that whilst some lead and copper items do prove to be a profitable pillage, as illicit 'scrap' they still only achieve a fraction of their replacement and repair cost.

The 2011 theft of Barbara Hepworth's statue 'Two Forms (Divided Circle)' from Dulwich Park, South London, is a case in point. The statue was insured for its £500,000 estimated value as an art artefact. The press report conjectures that the thieves would have only got around £750 for it as scrap brass.

Why, then, are metal items so attractive to thieves?

This strange situation suggests an odd mentality that we understand poorly, if at all. When I speak to crime enforcement agencies I'm told that metal thieves are rational, they are attracted to the low risk, high reward nature of metal theft because they make a sober cost/benefit calculation. But in the same breath I'm told (dismissively): "Don't try and think too deeply about what is driving these criminals. It is just about money. They don't think deeply, so neither should you."

How can we account for the instances where metal theft activity runs counter to a rational cost/benefit calculation?

Yet two points strike me. First, even if we accept the 'rational choice theory' [1] in play here, surely there must be value in actually examining precisely how this calculation, this orientation to the crime, the commodity and the buildings is conducted by these perpetrators?

And, secondly if this is solely driven by rational calculation why is the crime more prevalent in some geographical areas than others? In short, if the journey to this crime is so direct and obvious why isn't everyone doing it, and everywhere?

There has to date been surprisingly little research into metal theft by any academic discipline. The topic seems to suffer from being a 'hybrid', having no single obvious home and requiring a strange mix of knowledge to master it. And I note that it has appeared too mundane or 'engineering' related to attract the attention of most criminologists.

An anthropologically inclined study would look at the cultural networks through which an awareness of the exchange-value of such metals circulates, and the requisite technological knowledge of how to extract these materials from their host buildings and structures.

Current police-led investigations are primarily looking at the 'fencing' networks down-stream of the extractive crime event: how the pillaged material finds its way into the scrap metal industry and is ultimately recycled back into manufacturing uses.

But what about the originating, 'upstream' dimension – the attitudinal change that leads to places being 'read' differently and thereby targeted?

Ripe for theft? Photo by Luke Bennett
Ripe for theft? Photo by Luke Bennett

If all of this theft is controlled by some 'invisible hand' of metal market price information, how can we account for the instances where metal theft activity runs counter to a rational cost/benefit calculation (like the brass memorial plaques mentioned above)? What of 'copy-cat' (late entrant) effects, those who jump on the bandwagon and target marginal metals in the built environment?

We can imagine a scenario in which each 'low-gain' instance of such theft is carried out by a 'new entrant' who has yet to perfect his market understanding and technological know-how. If they don't perfect their knowledge, they would, if behaving rationally, soon have to get out of the game altogether.

The problem is that we don't know for sure what drives theft, and how quickly the perpetrators come to notice that they are doing it well (or badly). Humans are attracted to things that appear to be valuable for one reason or another. Theft can also be a means of social bonding, an adrenaline rush, and/or a desire to inflict damage or upset.

To my mind there is much that could be gleaned by studying the role of object-attachment within the criminal communities that perpetrate these crimes and amongst those who have these targeted assets in their localities. What strikes me as most fascinating about the phenomenon is the human/material interface.

Here are statues, buildings and portions of civil engineering that are being read by metal thieves not as integral things in themselves, but rather as temporary assemblages of component parts. Thus a church is read as a brick or stone edifice upon which sits a crop of lead or copper ripe for plucking.

This strikes me as something eminently anthropological in nature – a hunter/gatherer orientation in which certain information circulates, valorising (as commodity) portions of the given environment acting out a dynamic tension between use-value and exchange-value.

What brings someone to think of a war memorial plaque as 'simply' a commodity and to disregard its symbolic / sentimental value as remembrance of something?

If we could understand how all of these ideas are learnt and circulated, anthropological insights might help to inform anti-metal theft strategies. Perhaps effective ways of warning off perpetrators could be developed.

At a conference recently on tackling metal theft from heritage assets, I tentatively asked whether labelling might help to 'train' would-be thieves about the surprisingly low value of the memorial plaques or brass statues that they might be about to steal.

My hosts looked at me with concern, as though offering-up this information might be giving-in in some way (acknowledging the rationality?), but I was also told "it won't make any difference", that there is a crime wave currently targeting Rhino horn and British museums have fitted their stuffed Rhinos with substitute resin horns and attendant labelling, yet these thefts continue regardless.

Is this because the thieves think the labels are a double bluff or because the assailants are new entrants yet to fully understand how this market works?

It's clear that we can't predict what will be stolen solely by its saleable value. My police informants are right to see a correlation between world metals prices and this crime wave, but these 'price signals' are not the only influences on metal theft: understanding the mentality of metal theft does, in fact, require deep thought, because the paradoxes that underpin it are socially complex.


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