Thieves target statues of national heroes, other secular artworks in Iran

By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Thursday, May 6, 2010

TEHRAN -- It is the case of the missing statues.

Over the past few weeks, nearly a dozen bronze busts and abstract sculptures have been taken from their pedestals in parks and squares across Tehran, apparently with the use of heavy lifting equipment and trucks.

It would be an unusual but not necessarily buzz-worthy series of heists -- but for one thing: The thieves are targeting artworks that explicitly depict national, as opposed to Islamist, heroes. An abstract work representing a mother and daughter and another of a man's bare chest also have gone missing.

Here in the Islamic Republic of Iran, the meaning is not lost.

"Some groups and individuals who believe that statues are against faith and cultural principles are involved," said Morteza Talaee, a former Tehran police commander who is a member of the city council, according to the Islamic Republic News Agency.

"These were statues of national, artistic and culturally influential personages that have been stolen," he said. "This is obviously not a normal theft."

It is not the first time that vigilantes have gone after symbols of secularism. Islamists have disrupted pop concerts, demonstrated against films and attacked political figures advocating change. When it comes to visual art, some hard-liners in Iran tend to disapprove of works that portray historical personalities, or human life at all.

If authorities know who is behind the thefts, they have not said anything. One of the heists has reportedly been caught on a traffic surveillance camera, but police have not disclosed what the footage shows.

In the meantime, a task force has been formed to catch the robbers, Gen. Hossein Sajedinia, the police chief of Tehran, told the semiofficial Mehr News Agency on Tuesday. "We will have results soon," he said.

An online news site, Asr-e Iran, has suggested that the thefts are the work of independent operators.

"They make pretexts that statues are sinful or are against famous characters," the site said.

Artists are aggrieved, and one pointed out that the crooks could hardly be in it for the money.

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