The British Museum Initiates Proceedings Against Ex-Curator Over Alleged Thefts

A new legal filing lays out a trail of damning evidence following a police search of former employee's home.

The British Museum. Photo: Daniel Leal / AFP via Getty Images.

The British Museum is hitting back against a former longtime employee who allegedly stole and often sold some 1,800 objects from its collection.

Attorneys for trustees of the museum made a 24-page filing in the High Court of Justice King’s Bench Division against Peter Higgs, who was employed in the museum’s department of Greece and Rome for 30 years, from 1993 until 2023, when he was fired for “gross misconduct.” At the time of his dismissal, he was a senior curator of ancient Greek collections and the acting head of the department.

According to the filing, labeled as a “skeleton argument” and reviewed by Artnet News, the museum has “compelling evidence” that between 2009 and 2018, Higgs “abused his position of trust” by stealing gems, jewelry, gold, silver, and other items from its collection, and had “intentionally damaged” some items by attempting to remove gold or silver from them.

The full extent of Higgs’s alleged wrongdoing is not yet known. However, the museum estimates that more than 1,800 items were stolen or damaged, and that hundreds were sold or offered by Higgs, who used eBay and PayPal to transact the sales and receive payment. London’s Metropolitan Police Service (MPS) informed the museum that Higgs made 96 sales of objects similar to those held in the museum’s collection from his eBay account between May 2014 and December 2017. Those sales were made to some 45 different buyers for relatively small amounts of money—double-digit or low triple-digit sums—the court papers stated.

As part of the claim, the museum is asking eBay and PayPal to turn over related documents. While the museum alleges that Higgs often engaged in sophisticated ruses to cover his tracks, many of the attempts at hiding his actions were shoddy or downright absurd. For example, he used PayPal accounts that were associated with his home address or used the false name “Paul Higgins” to transact under the same account registered to himself (Peter Higgs).

An elderly man looking at a bespectacled woman who is speaking into a microphone.

Curator Peter John Higgs (right) during a press conference for “Agon! La Competicion En La Antigua Grecia” at Caixaforum Madrid on July 13, 2017 in Madrid, Spain. Photo: Samuel de Roman/Getty Images.

Higgs also attempted to cover up the theft and damage of items by manipulating the contents of the museum’s I.T. systems in instances where there was no legitimate reason to do so, according to the museum’s filing. This included breaking links to images of objects, in order to make alteration more difficult to detect, as well as editing objects outside his area of specialization. Further, the police uncovered handwritten notes and printed instructions at Higgs former workspace about editing the museum database. 

According to the court papers, MPS conducted a search of Higgs’s home in August 2023 and seized a number of items, including 11 electronic devices that remain in police custody while an investigation is ongoing. A black notebook containing the registration numbers of some of the stolen or damaged items was also seized by police.

Also during the home search, MPS found and seized a collection of ancient bronze coins and medals, alongside envelopes with handwritten notes. They appeared to match a small collection of registered and unregistered coins kept in the museum’s Greek and Roman reserve room. Police compared the envelopes from Higgs’s home with with samples from the museum collection and concluded “that there is a strong possibility that the items seized… belong to the museum.” Higgs denied this, saying that the coins and medals came from a deceased relative named Mary Patricia Bellamy.

Notably, Higgs has yet to be charged with a criminal offense, the museum filing stated.

According to the filing, Higgs has not filed any evidence in response to the museum’s action: “His position has been that he is suffering from severe mental strain and is seeking counseling for mental health and depression and is unable to respond effectively to the proceedings. He is represented by solicitors in the criminal proceedings, who have provided some assistance to him in respect of the civil proceedings on a pro bono basis. It is understood however that he will not be represented at the hearing.” Higgs could not immediately be reached for comment.

The museum declined to comment beyond what is contained in the filing. According to a BBC report, the High Court agreed with and ordered the disclosure of the eBay and PayPal records. The court was informed that Higgs “intended to dispute the claims,” the BBC reported.

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