British Museum ex-curator slates ‘incredibly poor’ security that let thief take valuables over years | The Independent

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Aug 27, 2023, 8:16:17 PMAug 27
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‘Incredibly poor’ British Museum security let thief take valuables over years, ex-curator claims

Exclusive: Second expert claims colleague alerted bosses numerous times as far back as 2020

Tara Cobham, Jane Dalton - 6 hours ago

A former curator at the British Museum has claimed security there was “incredibly poor”, which led to the theft of hundreds – and possibly thousands – of precious artefacts.

And a second expert has told The Independent a colleague raised concerns to the museum numerous times as far back as 2020, after spotting certain items for sale on eBay.

The London institution was rocked by scandal last week when it emerged that irreplaceable treasures had vanished from its vaults.

Its director, Hartwig Fischer, resigned on Friday, admitting the museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021, and to the problem that has now fully emerged”.

Mr Fischer is the second scalp the scandal has claimed so far. Last month, the head of the museum’s department of Greece and Rome was sacked after the disappearance of the ancient and antique items, such as gold jewellery, glass and semi-precious stones. Thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds, most had been kept in a storeroom.

Antiquities expert Peter Higgs denied having stolen the artefacts, with his family protesting his innocence.

The Metropolitan Police have interviewed a man, but no one has been arrested.

Now an ex-curator in a different department has claimed scores of other conservators, specialists and researchers may go into any storeroom in the same week or even on the same day with no oversight of cataloguing, leaving invaluable items at risk.

“The British Museum really does need to review its security policy,” the former member of staff, who did not wish to be named. told The Independent.

“Cataloguing was incredibly spotty. Each object does have a number and designated place in the store, but in probably most cases that’s all they have... The stores are alarmed but not otherwise monitored.

“I would call up security, tell them which room I was entering, get the key and that’s all I needed to do to have access to a huge range of objects.

“Many of the collections are stored in the same rooms as others, so if a person were dishonest they would have the cover of knowing that scores of other curators, conservators, specialists and researchers would have been in that room in the same week or even day.”

The ex-curator told how she was never required to let anyone know which objects she was working with on any day.

Experts put tags in drawers when removing items, but there was no oversight of that, she said.

Pay in the sector, and particularly at the museum, is so poor that many experts with world-class reputations “end up making tough decisions about having children or eating”, she claimed, adding: “And when you’re that desperate, things can go wrong.

“A lot of my colleagues are barely making enough for rent, particularly with the cost of living crisis. At the British Museum this was brought up by the supervisor of my line manager at nearly every departmental meeting.”

Calling the museum’s security “incredibly poor”, she further suggested Mr Higgs was innocent.

“He also wouldn’t have had a lot of control,” she said. “Even if he knew it was happening, which is incredibly doubtful unless he was directly involved, I don’t think he could have himself even sacked the responsible party without showing clear evidence of what had happened.”

Separately, a leading expert on Roman art at the University of Oxford said a colleague had alerted museum bosses to eBay listings, but was “constantly apparently getting nowhere with the museum and getting very upset as a consequence”.

Professor Martin Henig told The Independent he believed reports that up to 2,000 items had vanished over several years.

“To my eyes, these were major treasures of perhaps inestimable value, a window into ancient life. It is equivalent to ransacking a room in an art gallery,” he said.

He agreed with the former curator there had been cataloguing failures, especially of smaller items.

“The British Museum has been rather negligent with this aspect of the collection,” he said, claiming “neglect” and “disregard” of the gem collection ultimately led the thief to think they could “get away with most things”.

The professor said the collection of at least 4,000 Greek and Roman items alone in 1926 contained “superb” material. “Having worked on this material for over 50 years, though not from the Greek and Roman Gallery, I am heartbroken.”

Suggesting the delay could have been due to fears the scandal would “upset the institution”, Prof Henig said: “The British Museum should have acted [when my colleague flagged the thefts] and clearly didn’t, so there is moral culpability more widely and probably higher up.”

An eBay spokesperson said it supported the police investigation, adding: “eBay does not tolerate the sale of stolen property. If we identify that a listing on our site is stolen, we immediately remove it and work with law enforcement to support investigations and keep our site safe.”

A British Museum spokesman said: “Our new research-and-storage facility outside Reading, the British Museum Archaeological Research Collection, allows us to document parts of the collection with unprecedented precision. Projects already under way to digitise and better document the collection will fully modernise our record-keeping.

“We take the care of all the objects in our collection extremely seriously, and thankfully incidents of this kind are incredibly rare.

“We have already tightened security arrangements and launched an independent review to fully understand what happened.

“This review will also make recommendations about further measures to ensure this doesn’t happen again. The independent review will conclude this year and we will publish the recommendations.”

    On the director’s resignation, George Osborne, a trustee chairman, said: “The trustees will now establish an interim arrangement, ensuring that the museum has the necessary leadership to take it through this turbulent period as we learn the lessons of what went wrong, and use them to develop plans for a strong future.

    “I am clear about this: we are going to fix what has gone wrong. The museum has a mission that lasts across generations.

    “We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”

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