The British Museum has sacked an employee after a number of precious objects including gold jewellery, semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD were found to be missing, stolen or damaged.
The majority of the missing items were small pieces kept primarily for research purposes, and none had recently been on public display.
On Wednesday (August 16), the museum announced that trustees had “imposed emergency measures to increase security” and called in the police.
Ironically, the museum is the world’s largest receiver of stolen goods. Its collection contains artefacts which were stolen from other countries, such as the Parthenon sculptures, Hoa Hakananai’a (a statue stolen from Easter Island in the 1800s), and several Benin bronzes stolen from Nigeria.
The museum said it will also be taking legal action against the staff member they believe to be responsible for the thefts. The individual in question is Peter Higgs, a senior curator who had worked at the institution for 30 years. Higgs was the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period before he was dismissed earlier this year.
Higgs and his family have vehemently denied the allegations, with Higg’s son telling the Telegraph that his father had “not done anything”. He said: “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.”
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Christopher Marinello of Art Recovery International said that he had heard reports that some of the missing objects had already been sold. According toThe Telegraph, some of the stolen items worth up to £50,000 were listed on eBay for as little as £40.
Missing jewellery has been appearing on the auction site since at least 2016, prompting an antiquities expert to inform the museum three years ago that they suspected a member of staff was stealing from the vaults.
Sources told The Telegraphthat they suspected the thefts went undetected for so long as a result of the museum’s failure to properly catalogue all eight million items in its collection.
George Osborne, the chairman of the museum, has instigated an independent review which will attempt to recover the items, establish exactly what is missing, work out exactly what happened and prevent a repeat. The Metropolitan Police’s economic and crime command is also investigating the thefts.