'More than 1,500' artefacts were stolen from British Museum, internal investigation reportedly reveals

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Aug 22, 2023, 7:46:17 PMAug 22
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'More than 1,500' artefacts were stolen from British Museum, internal investigation reportedly reveals

A Unesco antiquities trafficking expert says the theft is "probably the worst case so far"

Tom Seymour - 22 August 2023
The total number of artefacts allegedly taken by curator Peter Higgs is thought to be “closer to 2,000”, a source told The Daily Telegraph. 

Photo: Chris Dorney

The total number of artefacts allegedly taken by curator Peter Higgs is thought to be “closer to 2,000”, a source told The Daily Telegraph.

Photo: Chris Dorney

The number of items allegedly taken from the British Museum’s collection by the senior curator Peter Higgs is thought to total more than 1,500 separate artefacts, according to an internal investigation conducted by the museum and reportedly seen by The Daily Telegraph.

Higgs, the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period, was last week named by The Daily Telegraph and The Times newspapers as the prime suspect behind the disappearance of a host of artefacts held in the museum’s collection, many of which he is alleged to have sold on eBay, often for a tiny percentile of their estimated value. One Roman object, dating back more than two millennia and valued at up to £50,000, was allegedly sold for £40 on the e-commerce site.

Higgs is alleged to have removed items from the collection, without detection and for many years, with artefacts from the collection appearing on eBay as far back as 2016. The total number of artefacts allegedly taken by Higgs is thought to be “closer to 2,000”, a source told The Daily Telegraph.

Higgs was dismissed earlier this year and has not as yet been arrested, although the Metropolitan police have confirmed they are investigating. Higgs's family has denied the allegations against him.

The sheer number of artefacts taken from the museum’s collection will heap further pressure on a beleaguered senior leadership team, including Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s outgoing director.

Speaking to The Economist newspaper, Christos Tsirogiannis, a Unesco-affiliated antiquities trafficking expert, who heads the Working Group Illicit Antiquities Trafficking of the Unesco Chair on Threats to Cultural Heritage, says the British Museum theft is “probably the worst case so far…No one expects that to happen in a museum.”

The net value of the artefacts allegedly stolen by Higgs is thought to be in the tens of millions of pounds, with some dating back 3,500 years.

Higgs, who operated under a pseudonym on eBay, was identified after a user found his Paypal account linked to his Twitter feed, on which he had written both his real name and his job title at the museum. He was traced when allegedly attempting to sell items from the collection that had been properly catalogued, meaning they were traceable in the inventory.

Higgs was quoted in a Sunday Times investigation into the British Museum in 2002, during which a reporter for the paper gained an apprenticeship at the museum in order to expose the lax security under which the collection is held. Referring to the archives, Higgs told the paper: “It’s chaos down there.”

Prior to this story emerging, the British Museum had been at the centre of a series of restitution debates over contested artefacts, most notably the Parthenon Marbles, the Benin Bronzes and the Ethiopian Tabots. Time and again, its leadership has defended its collection against such restitution claims by arguing that the museum is capable of conserving and protecting artefacts uniquely well.

On the museum’s website, under a page titled ‘Governance’, it states: “The Museum's aim is to hold a collection representative of world cultures and to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited.”

A spokesperson for the British Museum told The Art Newspaper: “We won't be commenting on any details of the thefts while they're subject to a police investigation.”

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