May 27, 2008 / 12:18 AM / 10 years ago

Police fear stolen Canadian gold art may be melted

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (Reuters) - It is not known if thieves who raided a Canadian museum plan to sell the precious art they stole or simply want to melt the items down for the gold, police said on Monday.

The thieves who forced their way into the Museum of Anthropology in Vancouver over the weekend made off with 12 pieces of jewelry and art crafted by famed Canadian Haida artist Bill Reid, nearly all of which were made from gold.

The thieves also stole three gold Mexican necklaces, prompting fears from museum officials and Reid’s widow that the art was destined to be melted down for its precious metal rather than sold to collectors.

The University of British Columbia, which oversees the museum, on Monday offered a C$50,000 ($50,000) reward for information leading to the safe return of the stolen items that have been valued at about C$2 million.

To dissuade the thieves from destroying the items, museum officials issued a statement on Monday saying the gold itself would only be worth about C$15,000.

The Royal Canadian Mounted Police said it was too early to say what the exact motivation of the heist was.

“It could be only for the gold. It could be (for the art) to be sold abroad. It could be to sell in local pawns shops,” said RCMP Constable Annie Linteau. “We have to consider all of the possibilities.”

Reid, who died in 1998, is best known for his carvings, one of which, “Spirit of Haida Gwaii,” is pictured on Canada’s $20 bill. He made the stolen bracelets, brooches and other items from the late 1950s into the 1970s.

Like Reid’s other art, the jewelry designs were inspired by the legends and stories of the Haida people of the Queen Charlotte Islands on Canada’s Pacific coast.

Art experts have said the cultural value of the items is just as important as monetary value, and attempting to sell in any public way would be extremely difficult. One of the items is a gold box with sculptured eagle on top.

“This theft is the equivalent of a kidnapping aimed at one of the signature pieces of (Indian) art that carries and communicates the creative genius of the whole of the Canadian people,” museum director Anthony Shelton said.

Officials say the museum had an elaborate security system, but police said the thieves were able to break into the building sometime after it closed to visitors late on Friday and before staff returned on Saturday morning.

Investigators refused to release other details about the burglary, but Linteau said no video surveillance was available.

The RCMP have distributed pictures of the stolen items to Interpol in case the thieves attempt to sell them outside Canada.

($1=$0.99 Canadian)

Editing by Doina Chiacu

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