x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 22 January 2018

Brazen thieves are taking Tehran's bronze statues

Officials say common criminals are selling them for scrap, while others see thefts as the work of 'vigilante' clerics.

TEHRAN // City officials say footage from a traffic control camera may help police find those responsible for the disappearance of at least 11 large bronze statues from public spaces in Tehran over the past month. Speculation has led some to believe the cause of the thefts is obvious: the thieves must be ripping the statues from their plinths and selling the bronze to scrap-metal dealers for cash. But Tehran's mayor, Mohammad Bagher Qalibaf, did not rule out the possibility of motivation other than the economic.

"There's a possibility that the issue is more complicated" than ordinary theft, he was quoted by Fars News Agency as saying yesterday. He did not elaborate but others have speculated that religious conservatives could be responsible. "The footage and other investigations by Tehran municipality will greatly help to resolve the riddle of the theft of the statues," Mohammad Javad Shooshtari, a municipality official, said.

Passers-by first noticed the disappearance of the statue of Ostad Shahriyar, a poet held in high esteem by both Farsi and Azeri speakers in Iran, from the garden of the City Theatre of Tehran soon after the Iranian new year holiday about a month ago. Since then, 10 other bronze statues of historical figures have vanished from parks and streets across the city. They include statues of two heroes of Iran's constitutional revolution of 1906, a liberal religious thinker whose ideas largely influenced the Islamic revolution of 1979, a number of other contemporary literary figures and artists, as well as that of a mother and her child.

If the statues, valued at 1.1 billion rials (Dh408,000), are not recovered, replacements will be installed, Seyed Mohammad Hadi Ayazi, a Tehran municipality spokesman, was quoted by the Isna news agency as saying. The city is waiting for the completion of investigations before commissioning new statues, Mojtaba Mousavi, the head of the municipality office in charge of city sculptures, said. "We are still shocked by the thefts. They have affected the execution of our projects.

"Evidence directs us to believe that the thieves are after bronze statues and other statues are not in threat," Mr Mousavi added. While city officials claim the thefts were motivated by the relatively high value of the metal used in the statues, some citizens and artists are sceptical about this explanation. "It is very unlikely that the statues were taken for their metal. These statues weighed several hundred kilos. It takes several men, electrical equipment for severing the statue from its pedestals and a crane to remove each statue to a lorry. This can't go unnoticed in a city like Tehran - even in the middle of the night," a resident of the city said.

"Ordinary thieves will not put themselves in danger nine times when they could steal one piece of expensive jewellery in one burglary. There were so many jewellery shops they could rob in one go with much lesser risk of being caught and for a much bigger reward," he said. Jafar Najibi, a sculptor, whose statue disappeared from a main boulevard in western Tehran last week, told Mehr News Agency he found it difficult to believe the value of scrap bronze could be the only motivation for the theft of the statues. The selling price of the statue for its scrap metal does not justify the costs of the operation and the risk, the artist said.

Hiring a crane to install his 140kg statue on its pedestal had cost one million rials, whereas scrap bronze could sell for only about 30,000 rials per kilo, or about four million rials for the statue, he said. Fingers have been pointed at religious extremists who might have stolen the statues on the grounds that building and displaying statues is religiously prohibited. "It is possible that the thieves were against sculpting and that there is a group that opposes adornment of the city with statues," Mr Najibi told the Mehr News Agency.

Kalemeh, the official website of the opposition leader Mir Hossein Mousavi, has backed the theory of involvement of religious extremists. "The issue [of the involvement] of self-appointed vigilantes who issue their own religious edicts and carry them out should not be overlooked," it was said on Kalemeh on the weekend. Mr Mousavi is a painter and his wife, Zahra Rahnavard, is a celebrated sculptor whose iconic statue titled Mother adorned a square of the same name in Tehran until a few months ago when it was removed by city officials after protests following the election of the president.

Many high-ranking Shiite clerics prohibit depiction of human and animal forms, whether in painting, drawing or sculpture, on the grounds that making their likeness is an imitation of the work of God or because statues may prompt idolatry. Vigilantes have in a few cases destroyed statues displayed publicly or demanded their removal. In 2002 during a Friday prayer sermon in Tehran, a hardline cleric called on city officials of Isfahan to drop plans for the installation of a statue of Kaveh Ahangar. Kaveh was a mythical figure who led a popular uprising of Iranians against a foreign tyrant.

In Iran, there is no official ban on sculptures of human or animal forms, and sculpture is even taught in universities along with other genres of fine art. Statues and busts of national figures as well as abstract forms are displayed in public spaces such as parks and squares in many Iranian cities. However, some pieces were removed following the Islamic revolution for their nudity or depiction of the female form. Others were Islamicised by remodelling them to cover hair or bare legs and arms.