The British Museum has released new details around the theft of 2,000 Greek and Roman antiquities that has shaken public confidence in the storied institution.
As first reported by the Art Newspaper on Tuesday, the museum posted on its website the terms of reference of an independent review, which outlines the review team’s responsibilities. The document has determined that the thefts began as early as 1993 and lasted until last year. Available for reading on the museum’s website, it states that the “loss and/or damage of the affected objects occurred during the period from 1993 to 2022.” The British Museum has not identified the suspected thief, but media outlets have named Peter Higgs, a curator in the Greece and Rome department between 1993 and 2022, as a person of interest in the case.
Higgs has been contacted by the police but no charges have been filed. Higgs’ family has denied his involvement in the heist and his son Greg said in a statement quoted by the Art Newspaper: “He’s lost his job and his reputation and I don’t think it was fair…I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.”
Also of note is the fact that though the museum now admits that the thefts continued until 2022, Higgs was promoted to acting head of his department in January 2021, and held the post until January 2023. He was fired this July.
The terms of reference of the British Museum Independent Collection, Security and Governance Review appeared on the museum’s website on November 6 and has three co-chairs: former trustee and attorney, Nigel Boardman; Lucy D’Orsi, the chief constable of the British Transport Police; and Ian Karet an attorney and expert in charity law. The rest of the team is comprised of senior museum employees: David Bilson, head of security and visitor services; Mark Coady, head of internal audit; and Thomas Harrison, the keeper of Greece and Rome (also known as the head of the Department of Greece and Rome).
The review team is tasked with “identifying a complete list” of the stolen and damaged objects. The directive implies that the museum does not yet known the full extent of the crime, further noting that “the ongoing detailed audit of affected objects is likely to take longer”. The review will also record “failures of controls, processes or policies” which resulted in the losses and to suggest strategies for improvements. They will also evaluate the responses of the board of trustees to determine “whether actions taken or not taken” were sufficient, and if not, what improvement should be implemented.
According to BBC News, a Danish art dealer alerted the British Museum to stolen items in 2021, but was dismissed by senior staff and told that the “collection is protected.” Ittai Gradel, a specialist in engraved gems of the Graeco-Roman world, was told by director Hartwig Fischer that there was “no evidence to substantiate the allegations” that missing and stolen objects from its collection were being sold on the e-commerce website eBay.
According to the Telegraph, Gradel sent British Museum deputy director Jonathan Williams a 1,600-word detailed email in February 2021, about a Roman cameo that was offered for sale in an eBay auction, as well as other ancient artifacts. Williams wrote in response to the email that a “thorough investigation” had found “no suggestion of any wrongdoing”.
However, this August, news broke that an employee had been fired for the alleged theft of artifacts from the museum’s storerooms, raising concerns over its security and reinvigorating calls for the restitution of contested items. Museum leadership has struggled to contain the fallout, which was exacerbated by the resignation of Fische, on August 25. (Mark Jones has since been appointed interim director.)
In addition to these troubles, the museum has recently faced protests from activists over its philanthropic ties to oil companies, and a series of strikes by its unionized workers.