British Museum Recovers A Further 268 Stolen Objects From Collection

British Museum Artlyst

The British Museum has made public the investigation and return of 268 objects that were either misplaced or pilfered from its collection. This elevates the tally of recovered items to 626 after identifying over 1,500 missing pieces last summer. The reclaimed artefacts, primarily consisting of gems, jewellery, and other items, were traced back to thefts spanning more than 20 years, a scandal that has significantly marred the museum’s reputation.

The case centres around former museum curator Peter Higgs, dismissed last July for gross misconduct related to the thefts. Higgs, who served as the acting head of the Greece and Rome department, allegedly sold the poorly catalogued items on eBay, some at a fraction of their value. This represents one of the most severe incidents of museum theft in the UK in over half a century.

Danish collector and dealer Ittai Gradel played a pivotal role in unearthing the thefts. Gradel, who had unwittingly acquired 351 of the stolen items, alerted the museum to the issue despite his initial warnings being disregarded. His actions ultimately led to the resignation of the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, and deputy director, Jonathan Williams. Gradel has since returned the items he acquired, which were temporarily housed at the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen before being returned to London.

In December, the British Museum’s trustees decided to pursue civil litigation against Higgs to obtain information about the sale of stolen items. Legal action was initiated in March to obtain court orders granting access to Higgs’ eBay and PayPal accounts. This move aims to help identify the buyers and facilitate further recoveries.

The museum has expressed optimism about recovering additional items. A spokesman indicated that new leads could result in the recovery of about 100 more pieces. Investigations are ongoing, with substantial assistance expected from eBay and PayPal records. Chairman George Osborne highlighted the significance of these efforts, stating that recovering nearly half of the stolen items was an unexpected but welcome outcome.

Despite the progress, approximately 874 items still need to be accounted for. A police investigation into Higgs continues, though no arrests or charges have been made. Higgs’ son, Greg, has publicly denied his father’s involvement in the thefts, expressing doubt over the accusations.

To showcase the recovered items, the museum has set up a small display titled “Rediscovering Gems: Small Wonders, Big Impressions,” which will be on view until June 6. The British Museum has earnestly appealed to anyone with further information about the missing artefacts to step forward, underlining the importance of public cooperation in this ongoing investigation.

Chair of the British Museum George Osborne said: “Few expected to see this day, and even I had my doubts. When we announced the devastating news that objects had been stolen from our collection, people understandably assumed that was it – we were unlikely ever to see more than a handful of them again. That’s usually the history of thefts like this. “But the team at the British Museum refused to give up. Through clever detective work and a network of well-wishers, we’ve achieved a remarkable result: more than 600 of the objects are back with us, and a further 100 have been identified – almost half the stolen items we could recover. It’s a great result but we’re not resting here – the hunt goes on for the remaining missing objects. I urge anyone with any information to follow the example of all who’ve helped us and get in touch.”

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