The British Museum Has Launched a Website Seeking the Recovery of 2,000 Objects That Were Stolen From Its Collection

The museum is expanding its search after recovering 60 pieces and identifying another 300.

An external view of the British Museum on February 13, 2023. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

The British Museum has launched a new section of its website dedicated to the recovery of 2,000 items that were stolen from its collection. Launching the public appeal today, the museum invites anyone who is “concerned that [they] may be, or have been, in possession” of the missing objects to get in touch by email.

The shocking news that a senior curator, Peter Higgs, is suspected of the thefts and has been fired by the British Museum was made public in August. The museum’s former director Hartwig Fischer resigned shortly after it was found that the museum had missed key opportunities to put an end to the scheme in 2021, thanks to the efforts of a whistleblower. Fischer has been temporarily replaced by Sir Mark Jones, former director of the V&A.

Up until now, the museum’s investigation into the items whereabouts has taken place behind closed doors in partnership with London’s Metropolitan Police, with actions like monitoring the art market and registering the items on the Art Loss Register. These steps appear to have had some modest success, with 60 of these pieces now safely returned and a further 300 identified and soon to be returned.

The museum has chosen not to share all the details about which items remain missing “on the advice of recovery specialists,” although it is also likely that it is not able to list every item as many were never catalogued. Instead, it offers a guide to what kind of pieces are missing, predominantly ancient gems and jewelry from Greece and Rome.

A spokesperson for the Art Loss Register told The Art Newspaper that this policy may help prevent bad actors who discover they possess some of the antiquities from “selling them through channels were fewer questions are asked” or by trying to sell items for their material value by melting them down. So far what information the museum does have about the missing items has only been shared with members of the antiquities and jewelry trade.

Those in possession of the treasures may well have snapped them up on eBay, where Higgs allegedly listed the stolen goods over the course of several years. One piece of Roman jewelry that is reportedly worth up to £50,000 ($60,000) was sold by the seller known as Sultan1966 for a starting price of $340 ($48). The scandal has seen renewed calls for the repatriation of items the museum’s collection from several nations, including Greece and China.

Several current and former staff members and trustees have commented on the incident in a new report by London’s Evening Standard. “I’ve knocked around the BM for 30 to 35 years and known a lot of people who work there,” said one anonymous source who has worked with the museum on restitution claims. “I spoke to a dear friend of mine who works there at the end of last week about the thefts and he just rolled his eyes and said he wasn’t surprised.”

“From what I understand it is too big and is all over the place,” he added. “The fact they don’t know what their inventory is, how the hell can they hold their head up high and say they’re protecting anything at all? It is preposterous.”

 

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