Arts official Harold Sebag-Montefiore inspects Barbara Hepworth's "Two Forms (Divided Circle)" on its installation in Dulwich Park in 1970.

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Bronze artwork by sculptor Barbara Hepworth stolen from park in London

Art expert says it was likely sold for scrap for just a few hundred pounds

Demand for metals has led to thefts from railways, phone lines and war memorials

Politicians are facing calls to increase controls on scrap metal dealers to counter thefts

London CNN  — 

An artwork by Barbara Hepworth, one of the most highly regarded sculptors of the 20th century, has been stolen from a park in London, amid what art experts fear is a metal theft “epidemic.”

The bronze sculpture called “Two Forms (Divided Circle)” stood in Dulwich Park for more than 40 years until it was removed on Monday night. The artwork was insured for £500,000 ($785,000) but one art expert said it was likely to be sold for scrap for just a few hundred pounds.

Two years ago police said they believed that a Henry Moore bronze sculpture “Reclining Figure,” valued at £3 million, stolen from the late artist’s estate north of London was probably sold for just £1,500.

The crime comes as surging demand for copper, lead and bronze has led to thefts from railway lines, phone lines and even war memorials in Britain. This has led to delays on the rail network, while the theft of cables at a Welsh hospital last week led to the cancellation of 100 operations, including some for cancer treatment.

Julian Radcliffe, chairman of the Art Loss Register, which tracks stolen works, said the chance of the Hepworth sculpture being recovered was low. “The police are putting much effort into this theft, but due to the metal theft epidemic it was probably stolen for its scrap value.”

The artwork was unlikely to have been stolen by a collector, Radcliffe said. “Of 2,000 stolen items recovered in recent years, all but two were taken for financial gain. Any collector would want to publicize that they had an artwork so the idea of someone sitting in a cave surrounded by art is just a figment of novelists’ imagination.”

Art lovers were distraught over the theft of the work by Hepworth, who died in a fire at her studio in St. Ives, Cornwall, in 1975. Simon Wallis, director of the Hepworth Wakefield gallery in northern England, said: “Barbara Hepworth is one of the greatest artists of the 20th century and appreciation of her work has never been greater.

“Her work is a major part of this country’s cultural heritage and we very much hope the work will be recovered, so that the public can once again enjoy Two Forms (Divided Circle) in its original setting.”

UK politicians are facing calls to increase controls on scrap metal dealers to counter thefts during the economic downturn. The price of copper has risen exponentially due to increased demand for raw materials from countries such as China, and now trades at more $8,500 per ton. Gold, brass and lead values have also increased by almost 20% in 2011.