The massive bronze sculpture, Thomas Schomberg's "Athletes of Race", depicts a jockey on a saddled horse astride a Native American riding bareback. (Thomas Schomberg, incidentally, is the same artist who created the famous larger-than-life Rocky statue that once adorned the steps of the Philadelphia Art Museum, which was then relocated to the entrance of the Spectrum, and which most recently had mysteriously migrated back again to the steps of the art museum). "Athletes of Race" welcomed millions of visitors to Cherry Hill's Garden State Park from 1985 until the historic New Jersey racetrack's demolition a couple of years ago. The park's grounds were recently transformed into a much needed sprawling strip mall and housing development.
Though I would not call the sculpture an artistic masterpiece, "Athletes of Race" was nonetheless impressive, and it indeed had some historical significance for the community. Since the demolition of the racetrack, the sculpture sat - barely visible from the road - in the depths of a field adjacent to the new strip mall while its new owners, Edgewood Properties, decided what to do with it. In its purgatory, the sculpture was caged, eerily, behind a chain linked security fence, appearing as if it were a couple of giant caged stallions frozen mid-stride. My interest in the sculpture, its history, and its present plight drove me to visit it several weeks ago to shoot some images while I was in the neighborhood anyway (shopping at the much needed sprawling strip mall).
About a year ago, the subject of the sculpture came up during a meeting of the Cherry Hill Historical Commission, on which I serve. Apparently, the new owners of the development, Edgewood Properties, didn't really consider the plight of the sculpture a priority. At that meeting I warned that, with the sculpture essentially hidden from view, and giving the rising price of bronze, it was an obvious target for theft by scrap metal scavengers. My suggestion was that the sculpture be swiftly relocated to public display in a high visibility location. This never happened.
Well I regret to report that, some time during the past week, my prophecy was realized, and, remarkably, the one ton sculpture was severed from its base and carted off. In all likelihood the sculpture, by now, has been cut into pieces that are amidst a scrap heap in the hull of a cargo ship headed for the Far East. In a matter of days it will reach a foreign processor where, together with slews of other heaps, its entrails shall be molten and pressed into brand new shiny bronze. Several months from now, perhaps after making a return voyage to The States or a journey to some other industrialized nation, the new shiny bronze will be sold to foundry, where it will become part of another sculpture, or sold to some manufacturer of bronze this or that. This is the metallurgic cycle of life. Scrap metal is America's biggest export, and much of the scrap sent overseas eventually finds its way back here in some form or another.
These days, a considerable amount of the "high-end" scrap (i.e., bronze, brass, and copper) makes it to the heap by way of illicit means. Our neighborhood horse sculpture - that would cost a good part of a million bucks to create today - has been eviscerated in order to fetch a group of resourceful bandits (obviously with no appreciation for art) plus or minus four grand as scrap metal on the open market. Welcome to the new economy. This sort of crime has been running rampant. With the weak dollar, the price of metal soars. With a weak working class economy, desperate street thugs scan the landscape for anything shiny that isn't (or is) nailed down.
Our own sculpture studio was recently a victim of "scrapalization" when a heavy-as-all-heck 15-foot-long steel I-beam was taken from our yard one night without our permission (incidentally, we've since installed security cameras). It took us a forklift to place the beam there the day before; but somehow, someone (or ones) got it on their truck - presumably without the aid of heavy equipment. Steel is not-so-prized an alloy as bronze, so the beam probably fetched plus or minus twenty bucks on the open market. When you think about it, that's a lot of work for $20. When you add in the overhead - namely the cost of gas to fuel the guzzling getaway truck - and then split the proceeds among your co-conspirators, there ain't much in it for scrap iron thieves. Could this be a sign of how dire the economic situation is at the most fundamental level? Can rates of scrap theft in fact be a new sort of economic indicator? When the criminals do not merely stick to the semi-precious metals and start resorting to stealing plain old low grade steel, could this mean we are actually in a recession?
From what I hear, It is fairly common today for construction sites to be robbed of installed copper wiring, metal pipes (of all varieties), and galvanized conduit. In a most grotesque version of the crime, I recently learned that scores of cast bronze name plates had been chiseled away from headstones at local cemeteries, and then brought, en masse, to be cashed in at an area metal recycling facility. The upright owner of the facility (the same facility our studio sends its legit scrap to) rejected the load and reported the attempt to the authorities.
There is a photo circulating around the Internet showing a metal scavenger in an apparent attempt to cut into a somewhat girthy live wire with a pair of bolt cutters. The voltage of the line was a tad bit stronger than the thief had anticipated, and thus he was charred to a crisp, his body was now one with the bolt cutters, which bolt cutters were not one with the wire. It's not a pretty picture. But this is what it has come to.
When will this metal madness end? Short of a major turnaround in the economy, or a massive drop in the price of metal (neither of which seem to be just around the corner), I predict that this is a criminal activity that will continue to proliferate. As the quantity of these metal scavengers increases, and the supply of readily accessible high grade stuff diminishes, they will surely get more brazen. Who knows what's next? Here is some bad news for suburban home owners: aluminum prices are at an all-time high. You better pound a few extra nails in that aluminum siding. In the meantime, if you see any giant metal horses (or parts thereof) making their way through town, be sure to alert the authorities.
Ascalon Studios, Inc.