MADELEINE BRAND, host:
This is DAY TO DAY. I'm Madeleine Brand.
NOAH ADAMS, host:
And I'm Noah Adams.
In New Orleans, another case of what has been called industrial looting, that's when thieves strip copper, brass, others scrap metals from buildings and sell it.
In this case, though, it was art - the bronze and aluminum sculptures by John T. Scott. Somebody broke into a warehouse studio in New Orleans East, dismantled the sculptures, and hauled off the metal.
Ron Bechet shares the studio space with John Scott. Mr. Bechet, you walked in on this scene - is this right - Tuesday morning?
Mr. RON BECHET (Xavier University): Yes, the day after Christmas.
ADAMS: What was that like?
Mr. BECHET: Well, I didn't notice anything different until I started walking down the hall, and I saw my paintings weren't in the place that I left them. And as I went further down the hallway, I saw the black insulation from copper pipes along the intersecting hallway. And I knew something wasn't quite right.
ADAMS: Did you lose paintings?
Mr. BECHET: No, I didn't lose any of my paintings. They were still in the studio, they weren't in the same place where I left them, but they were - weren't taken away.
ADAMS: Not the case, though with John Scott's sculptures. What did they look like?
Mr. BECHET: Well, they were beautiful bronze sculptures on wooden pedestals, for the most part. And they were from the "Ritual of Oppression Series" that he did back in the late 70's. They were taken off of the pedestals, the bases. And the bases were discarded and apparently, they took away the bronze.
ADAMS: And the figures that have been on the pedestals - what were they of?
Mr. BECHET: They were of figures, and parts of figures inside of boxes. He called them Rhodesian boxes from that time frame. They were enclosed in these boxes, and parts of the figures - the mouths, the nipples, those parts that gave nourishment to human form, but yet, they were inside of the box and couldn't get out.
ADAMS: Is the series about slavery?
Mr. BECHET: Yes.
ADAMS: Are these valuable works.
Mr. BECHET: Oh, yes. Yes. Were not just valuable in terms of monetary value, but in terms of the great loss that we have, that we don't have these pieces anymore to study and to look at.
ADAMS: Any idea that the thieves knew what they were getting in terms of the sculptures?
Mr. BECHET: I don't think so. You can see that they were actually dismantling the pieces. They were taking the bases off. They used the tools that we had in the shop. They actually knocked the wooden base from the metal sculpture. And they were literally taking the screws out and so on.
And you know, they had two hacksaws up there as well. And so we don't know exactly what they did, but they, certainly, were trying to take just the metal. They also took the plumbing. They took the copper pipe, and they also took the wiring out of the walls and out of the machinery in the studio.
ADAMS: Have you talked with the police? Have they checked with the scrap metal dealers? It looks like this is so distinctive a material to come into a place to be sold that somebody would know about them.
Mr. BECHET: Yeah. When the police came out, we obviously described the pieces and showed them what I could from books and so on that we have around, of the works. And they said that they would investigate and do what they could to recover them, obviously, but we didn't know for sure exactly what they would be doing in terms of the investigation.
I actually called some of the scrap dealers myself, and I asked them to be on alert for them. And in talking with the scrap metal yards they said that this often comes up because of the upsurge in the price of copper and brass.
ADAMS: You're saying they often see work that is obviously art.
Mr. BECHET: Obviously art, and obviously, it doesn't belong to the person who's actually bringing it in to be sold. And so that they said they've had a lot of calls from sheriff's departments and the police departments around in the area here.
ADAMS: Do you think that this sort of burglary and theft of the material, could have happened, would have happened, might have happened, before Katrina? Or is this something that you're seeing afterwards?
Mr. BECHET: I think it's after. Obviously, we've had our share of thefts of obvious things, but to literally go into buildings and to take out the plumbing and the wiring, we didn't have that, that I know of, before Katrina.
And it's happened to several of my friends and colleagues, where they've also had their plumbing taken out of their house for the copper and wiring taken out. And friends - I had a friend who was about ready to rewire their house. They ordered the wire and had it inside of the house to be installed. And when they came back, it was all gone.
ADAMS: Another sad part of this story is John Scott himself, he is - do I have this right - he's had a second lung transplant, and he's in the hospital in Houston?
Mr. BECHET: That's correct.
ADAMS: And you had to call him and tell him.
Mr. BECHET: Well, I called his wife and told her, as well as his children. And I'm not sure if they told John yet or not. He really doesn't need this extra burden at this point. He's actually still recovering from his surgery, and we hope that this won't set him back any in his recovery.
ADAMS: Ron Bechet, chairman of the Art Department of Xavier University in New Orleans. Thank you, Mr. Bechet.
Mr. BECHET: You're welcome.
ADAMS: And you can see a photo gallery that displays some of the looted sculptures at our Web site, NPR.org.