Home Magazine British Museum Under the Spotlight: The Mystery of the Missing Jewels

The disappearance of precious objects from the British Museum's collection has caused a significant internal shock, resulting in the resignations of both the director and the deputy director. Now, the renowned British museum faces a series of new challenges and an uncertain future in an attempt to restore its reputation and prominent position in the world's cultural heritage.

Related Articles: Art Destinations for Autumn: Must-See Exhibitions Across Europe, BOTTEGA '500 - Artists from the Italian Scene Resurface in New YorkAfrican Fauna in Art: A Close Look to Depictions of Elephants, Lions, and Giraffe

On August 16th, the British Museum publicly disclosed the "disappearance, theft, or damage" of a series of valuable objects from its collection. These items included gold jewelry, semi-precious stones, and glass, dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. In the announcement, the museum expressed its intention to take legal action against a staff member suspected of being responsible for the theft of these objects. Subsequently, newspapers reported the dismissal of Peter Higgs, effective from the end of July this year. Higgs, whose family continues to deny the accusations against him, had worked as a curator of Greek and Roman art at the museum for three decades and is suspected of having stolen approximately 2,000 objects over the years, reselling them for sometimes meager sums on eBay. The Telegraph, in an article on August 17th, reported that a Roman jewel made of onyx with a real value ranging from £25,000 to £50,000 was listed for sale on the famous auction site with a minimum price of £40 in 2016, without attracting any bids.

Thefts at the British Museum: Reports and Resignations

It all began when a dealer named Ittai Gradel raised an alarm in 2021 after realizing that he had purchased objects that, in his opinion, belonged to the British Museum's collections. Gradel had contacted the museum, reporting that these objects had been sold on eBay by an individual named Paul Higgins, but a PayPal account linked to Peter Higgs was used for the transactions. Nevertheless, the London museum continued to ignore the reports until October of last year. According to some journalistic sources, the director of the prestigious British museum, Hartwig Fischer, and his deputy, Jonathan Williams, had stated, after conducting an internal investigation, that no anomalies had been found. However, following the previews published by some British newspapers about what had transpired, the leadership of the British Museum decided to announce Fischer's resignation at the end of July. The enormous scandal and the continuous unveiling of new details related to the matter prompted Fischer to make a final decision, and on August 25th, through an official statement, he left his position. Just three hours later, Williams also decided to resign from his position as deputy director. The accusation against both of them relates to alleged negligence in addressing reports regarding stolen or missing objects in the collection without taking concrete measures to address the situation.

The British Museum. Courtesy of The British Museum

Thefts at the British Museum: New Appointments

Meanwhile, George Osborne, the chairman of the board of trustees of the British Museum, appointed Carl Heron as interim deputy director, describing him as an "authoritative figure within the museum." Heron, who had been working at the museum since 2016 as the director of scientific research, had previously held the position of head of the Department of Archaeological Sciences at the University of Bradford. In less than a week, Mark Jones, who served as the director of the National Museums of Scotland from 1992 to 2001 and the Victoria & Albert Museum in London from 2001 to 2011, was appointed interim director of the British Museum. Jones will now face the immediate challenges arising from one of the most significant crises the British Museum has had to deal with in many years.

Thefts at the British Museum: Shortcomings

One of the most urgent challenges involves the immediate launch of a project to archive and create a comprehensive catalog of the collection, accessible to everyone. According to the analysis of some experts, the lack of documentation regarding a substantial part of the museum's collection has significantly impacted issues related to theft, identification, and recovery of stolen objects. According to Dan Hicks, curator of the Pitt Rivers Museum, in an article published on August 29th by The Art Newspaper, the British Museum only began cataloging its collection in the last forty years without adequately following the minimum requirements for archiving unexhibited works. This has led to widely incomplete documentation of the estimated eight million objects in the collection.

Thefts at the British Museum: Challenges for the Future

The development and acceleration of the cataloging process would require a significant increase in staff, which is currently considerably understaffed. This presents a challenging issue at a time when funding for British state museums has seen significant reductions in recent years. Additionally, the management of sponsors further complicates the situation. For example, the possible separation from British Petroleum, an economically crucial partner, has been a subject of discussion for some time but is incompatible with the commitment made by the previous administration against climate change. Last but not least, the British Museum, like other international institutions, is grappling with a complex controversy regarding the restitution of artworks stolen during the colonial era. One of the most well-known examples is the Elgin Marbles, removed from the Parthenon and taken from Greece in 1823, for which the Greek Minister of Culture, Lina Mendoni, has initiated a delicate ongoing negotiation process.

Thefts at the British Museum: Objectives

In this particularly delicate moment, George Osborne states that restoring leadership within the institution offers a solid hope of successfully addressing current difficulties and emerging stronger. "We will need to learn from what has just happened, but we must also lift our heads and refocus on the vital mission of caring for the museum, supporting all the brilliant work we are doing, and commencing the significant task of museum renewal." The task facing the British Museum is undoubtedly of great significance: to rebuild the credibility and prestige of one of the world's most renowned museum institutions. An objective that promises to be challenging, to say the least.

Cover Image: British Museum Great Court, London, UK - Via Wikimedia Commons

Written by Kooness

Stay Tuned on Kooness Art Magazine for more exciting news from the art world.