British sculptor Barbara Hepworth's artwork "Two Forms (Divided Circle)" in Dulwich Park in south London was been stolen, possibly because of its scrap metal value. (Reuters)

For 40 years, art enthusiasts admired a 7-foot-tall modern bronze sculpture in a leafy park in south London close to a boating lake.

But it seems others had their eyes on it, too. “Two Forms (Divided Circle),” by the well-known British sculptor Barbara Hepworth, was stolen last week, and the widespread speculation here is that it will be melted down for cash.

As global metal prices have boomed, so, too, have incidents of metal theft, with thieves circling Britain like magpies searching for shiny objects. Energy firms, telecommunications companies and the country’s rail network all reported record levels of metal theft this year, and officials suspect that organized crime groups are increasingly to blame.

Last week, London’s Metropolitan Police launched a specialist squad to tackle the problem. By unhappy coincidence, the Hepworth sculpture, insured for nearly $800,000, was stolen the very same day.

“It’s heartbreaking,” said Peter John, a local official in Southwark, where the sculpture resided. “It’s such an important piece of art to be lost for scrap metal where thieves may get, what, a couple of thousand pounds?”

The economic cost of the surge in metal theft is estimated at more than $1 billion this year. A rail official recently warned that the spate of thefts on the railways, which frequently grind to a halt after copper cable is yanked from alongside the tracks, could snarl transport during the 2012 Summer Olympics.

Metal thieves have made headlines over the past year by swiping public art, railway cables, phone cables, children’s swings, stairs from fire escapes, bus shelters, manhole covers, doorknobs, musical instruments, metal grills, cabling from electrical substations and lead from church roofs.

Pilfering at war memorials has triggered particular revulsion, with Prime Minister David Cameron recently calling it “an absolutely sickening” crime.

“War memorials remain at the heart of community remembrance. When they are stolen, it’s really an emotional time,” said Frances Moreton, director of the War Memorials Trust, which estimates that one monument is plundered every week for its bronze, copper or other metal.

Stories abound of schemes to deter criminals: Priests sleep inside their churches, hoping to scare off thieves who strike at night; ex-soldiers are paid to patrol railway tracks; companies douse their metals with a liquid called SmartWater, which acts as a kind of forensic tag that sticks not only to the metal but also to whoever touches it and glows under ultraviolet light.

The British Transport Police say metal theft from the railways has risen 70 percent from year-ago levels, while the Energy Network Association, a trade body for power distribution companies, says its members report a doubling of thefts over the past year.

Rising prices as culprit

Almost everyone blames global metal prices, especially for copper, which has fallen recently but has more than doubled over the past three years, spurred on by industrialization in China and India.

“When the price of copper goes up, we all groan,” said Kate Snowden, a spokeswoman at Network Rail, which owns most of the rail tracks in Britain.

With an average of six to eight attacks a day, the rail network has been hit particularly hard in part because thieves know exactly where the loot is. And the impact on commuters can be massive: Train delays blamed on the thefts last year exceeded 6,000 hours.

But even if metal is ubiquitous, the act of stealing can be fatal. Ten thieves have been killed in the past year, said Glyn Hellam, a metal theft expert with the British Transport Police.

Victims of metal theft are calling for urgent legal reforms that would prohibit dealers from using cash transactions, thus ensuring an audit trail, and require sellers to prove their identity.

Because thieves can give a false name to a metal recycler, it can be difficult for police to track down the culprits, even when they find stolen property.

Metal theft has spiked in the United States and other countries, but many other nations place more stringent regulations on the metal recycling industry. For instance, in the United States, the majority of states require that sellers show proof of identification, often a driver’s license. Some states also ban cash transactions, while others are considering it.

The British government has suggested it might revise the law, with Oliver Eden, a Home Office minister, telling the BBC that “a law dating back to the 1960s is not sufficient to deal with an increasingly organized crime.”

Crime rings blamed

Organized crime rings are the only way to explain the increasing sophistication of attacks, said Luke Beeson, who heads a team of 40 metal theft specialists at telecommunications giant British Telecom. Beeson described a recent incident in which thieves posed as BT engineers while riding around in several stolen company vehicles; the scale of the deception could only mean organized crime, he said.

“We’re asking police now to challenge our engineers,” he said.

Alison Etherden, spokeswoman for the British Metal Recycling Association, a trade group for scrap yards, said some dealers are already experimenting with forcing sellers to prove their identity. But she argued that authorities should focus on stamping out illegal recycling sites, of which there are about 800, she estimates.

But without a drastic fall in metal prices or changes to legislation, many worry that metal theft will continue, with its consequences felt throughout society.

This month, University Hospital Llandough in south Wales was forced to cancel 81 operations when thieves stripped 100 yards of metal from a nearby power substation.

“For these thieves,” said Estelle Hitchon, a spokeswoman for the hospital’s board, “the monetary value of copper is of more consequence than the health and well-being of our patients.”