Las Vegas Sun

August 27, 2014

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Not what thieves thought

It must have seemed like easy money; steal two statues - both seemingly bronze - sitting outside Opportunity Village, then melt them down for the value of the metal.

But the thieves who made away with the sitting angel and the two children soldered to a park bench might have made a bad five-finger investment.

The sculptures stolen from the nonprofit organization this week are likely knockoffs made from low-grade metals, mass produced in Thailand to look like another artist's work, according to German bronze artist Impala Lechner, the leader of an organization fighting bronze sculpture counterfeiting.

Although Opportunity officials had no idea who made the sculptures, a quick glance at the one sculpture thieves didn't steal - a jester perched atop a ball juggling clubs - reveals the work is signed across the back in a loopy script: Jim Davidson.

But Davidson doesn't exist, according to Lechner and several other international artists.

It's just a name Thai foundry workers etch into thousands of $500 knockoffs before selling them to U.S. distributors who mark the cost up by thousands, Lechner said.

Opportunity Village Chief Development Officer Linda Smith thinks the nonprofit organization paid $8,000 to $10,000 a piece for the statues. No one in the organization can remember, so far, where the statues came from.

And wherever they're going, if the statues are knockoffs, it will soon become clear they're not really bronze.

"Definitely they are fake," Lechner said by phone from Germany on Wednesday. "They should all be destroyed."

That could be their fate. Real bronze is more than 90 percent copper, which is why thieves across the country have started stealing bronze statues and selling them to scrap dealers. The value of copper has more than tripled since 2003, said Bryan McGannon, spokesman for the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries Inc. Scrap-metal businesses pay $2 per pound for copper, but stolen copper can fetch more on the black market.

Counterfeit sculptures seized during raids of Thai foundries have been tested and are about 50 percent copper at best, Lechner said. The remaining metals are typically a mix of iron, aluminum and tin, and the sculptures are painted with a fake patina.

If the thieves are hoping for copper, Lechner said, there's a good chance they'll be disappointed with the lesser value of the melted "pot" metal.

This is not the fist time a Jim Davidson sculpture has come under question.

Enumclaw, Wash., paid more than $5,000 for a sculpture of children playing musical instruments, billed as bronze and sold online, according to an Aug. 10 article in The Seattle Times. The sculpture arrived broken and signed "Jim Davidson," a name city officials soon learned seemed to exist only online, and always attached to a "phantom" artist accused of counterfeiting, the Times reported.

Jane DeDecker, an American bronze artist whose sculptures of children sell for thousands of dollars, says Davidson has counterfeited several of her works. DeDecker is a member of Lechner's anti-counterfeiting organization, Bronze Artists for Copyright.

Maggie DeDecker, the artist's sister and manager, told the Times, "To this point, we have not found a Jim Davidson who exists."

But Jim Davidson does have a Web site, where prospective buyers can browse though several types of statues, although most are of children. Those are the most popular and the most counterfeited, according to Art-Talk magazine, which called the phenomenon "bronze child abduction."

Davidson's Web site, registered in Thailand, features a sculpture almost identical to Opportunity Village's balancing bronze jester and another similar to the stolen statue of the children seated on a park bench. It's the same statue, Opportunity Village employees said.

When contacted by the Sun at the artist's Web site, a colleague of Davidson's said via e-mail that the artist was unavailable. In broken English, the author of the e-mail described Davidson as a private artist who prefers to stay out of the spotlight and therefore makes himself open to rumor.

"He created a lot of art works around the world. But he has never open himself to the social, specially the U.S. artist ... Many times when the person who love his work have the questions and would like to contact him. But never have any answers return from Jim. So this is the weak point of Jim and someone whom loose the benefit take this point to attack him," the e-mail said.

The name "Jim Davidson," according to the artist's Web site, is a "pen name."

Lechner said she has seen Davidson's name on counterfeits across the country since 2003.

"Someone who is real and in a real profession, why would they hide?" Lechner said.

The Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries has issued a theft bulletin to national scrap metal dealers advising them to be on the lookout for the Opportunity Village sculptures.

"Something that is very recognizable may be altered in some fashion before it gets to a scrap facility," institute spokesman McGannon said. "It may look like a piece of rubble and not like an angel."

Metro Police are examining surveillance video that shows people near the stolen sculptures, Smith said.

No matter what the sculptures are made of, Smith wants them back. The organization, which provides job training and placement for developmentally disabled youths and adults, hosts weekly Friday night dance parties, and as guests would file in, Smith says, "They'd rub the wing to bring them luck."