The curious tale of British Museum’s disappearing collectionAugust 26, 2023
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London: Three months after the world was shut down amid the discovery of the coronavirus, an expert in antiquities contacted the British Museum with a red-hot tip that had become an obsession.
Their hunch was that they had uncovered theft on an industrial scale from the 264-year-old London institution – one of the world’s most prestigious galleries – in an act carried out over so long that almost no one had even noticed.
The British Museum in London has approximately 80,000 items on exhibition and millions in storage.
The person, whose identity remains a mystery, had turned detective after developing suspicions that a Roman onyx jewel which turned up for sale on eBay was a piece pictured in the museum’s online catalogue.
The June 2020 find added weight to this expert’s beliefs that other items found on online auction sites as long ago as 2016 were also stolen from the museum, although they’d been unable to find photographs to prove it. One had attracted no bids though it was reportedly valued at between £25,000 and £50,000 ($50,000 and $100,000).
The European expert contacted the museum – whose collection includes about 8 million items of human art and culture – via a middleman and the findings were passed on. A senior member of staff assured the finder that the matter would be investigated.
They heard nothing for months and, in October that year, the expert wrote to a colleague in Britain to express their frustration. The Telegraph reported this week the expert feared at the time that the museum “may not be interested in knowing” because the theft of items thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds would be “hugely embarrassing”.
It was quite the understatement.
A screenshot of ancient items listed on the British Museum’s online catalogue.Credit:
On Wednesday, three years after the initial tip, the museum’s announced it had dismissed a senior curator who had worked there for 30 years after it found items from its collection were missing, stolen or damaged. It said emergency measures to increase security were now in place.
Among those items were gold jewellery and gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. None had recently been on public display, and were kept primarily for academic and research purposes.
Peter John Higgs, the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period, was identified in British press reports as the person alleged to be responsible for the heist.
His alleged role in the scandal was uncovered when the anonymous expert noticed the seller was using the name “sultan1966”. They matched this name to Higgs’ Twitter handle.
The expert reportedly contacted the eBay seller in 2016 and asked if he was Higgs, but the seller denied this.
Higgs’s son, Greg, says his father maintains his innocence and that the dismissal has come as a shock.
“He’s not done anything,” he told The Times. “He’s lost his job and his reputation and I don’t think it was fair. It couldn’t have been [him]. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.
“He’s devastated about it because it’s his life’s work, basically. I’ve never known somebody who’s so passionate about what he did. I mean, he’s a world expert in his field.”
No arrests have yet been made, although the museum has committed to pursue legal action in the event of an arrest. It has been reported the items, which staff are now attempting to recover, are not insured.
Pressure has been growing on the museum – which attracted 4 million visitors last year – to address many of the contested items in their collections.
The museum, an increasingly contentious home of items such as the Elgin marbles and the Rosetta stone, holds collections from around the world covering 10,000 years of human history.
A key tenet of its argument for keeping many items, such as the marbles, rather than return them to their original countries is the quality of its care. The museum’s collections are housed, says its website, “in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”.
There has been no suggestion the stolen items had been taken for any ideological or political reason, such as repatriation.
Dorothy King, an archaeologist, said it was difficult to state with any certainty exactly which items were missing.
“The museum denied any were missing for two years, but about a third of the cameos I requested to see for study purposes this year were ‘unavailable’ and I was told that several would not be ‘available’ at any point in the future.”
Professor Martin Henig, a specialist in Roman engraved gems, said on Friday he and a colleague had also turned detective some years ago after spotting part of an ancient signet ring, thought to be in the museum’s collection, on sale by a private dealer.
George Osborne, a former UK chancellor who is the museum’s chairman, said the trustees were “extremely concerned” when they learnt earlier this year that items of the collection had been stolen and had taken decisive action.
Osborne said the museum now had three priorities: first, to recover the stolen items; second, to find out what, if anything, could have been done to stop this; and third, to do whatever it takes, with investment in security and collection records, to make sure it doesn’t happen again.
“It’s a sad day for all who love our British Museum, but we’re determined to right the wrongs and use the experience to build a stronger museum,” he said.
An independent review will be led by former museum trustee Nigel Boardman, and Lucy D’Orsi, chief constable of the British Transport Police. They will provide recommendations regarding future security arrangements and develop a plan to recover the missing items.
If it could get any more embarrassing for the institution, the theft appears to be a story decades in the making.
Questions were first raised about security at the museum and its record-keeping in 2002, when The Sunday Times sent an undercover reporter into the Greek and Roman antiquities department, where Higgs worked.
The scoop revealed how artefacts had gone missing in storerooms. Security was so lax that the reporter was able to carry part of an ancient Greek statue out without being noticed.
After returning it, the reporter raised his frustration with Higgs himself, who was then a curator, that hundreds of pieces appeared to have been mislaid.
Higgs told him he was confident they would be found but admitted: “It’s chaos down here”.
The British Museum said that, in the interest of working alongside the Metropolitan Police, it would not be commenting any further.
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