Many of the priceless artefacts suspected to have been stolen from the British Museum’s collections may never be recovered because of its poor record keeping, cultural heritage experts have said.
Ittai Gradel, a British-Danish antiquities dealer who uncovered the suspected thefts of items such as gold jewellery, semiprecious stones and ancient glassware, said he had been told hundreds of missing objects had never been properly cataloged by the museum, making it difficult to prove they belonged to its collections.
Gradel, who first alerted the museum to the suspected thefts in 2020, said he understood staff had found almost an entire collection of 942 unregistered gems was missing. The museum’s records only describe the collection as a whole and do not detail the individual pieces.
“As far as I understand, these individual items were not described, only a sum total,” he said. “So, 935 gems are missing and the problem is, if they can’t be identified, how can they return to the museum?
“They have been lying there without any registration at all for over 200 years,” making them an open invitation to theft “because who could ever find out?”
Gradel was singled out for an apology on Friday after the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, announced he was resigning over the suspected thefts from the museum’s vaults.
Fischer had earlier told the Guardian of his frustration that the extent of any appropriation of artefacts from its collection was not apparent when concerns were first raised in 2021.
He said: “We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.”
But it later transpired Gradel had spent years appealing to the museum to investigate, first airing his suspicions via an intermediary in 2020 before handing over a dossier of evidence in 2021 showing that items were being sold on eBay.
On Friday, Fischer withdrew his earlier remarks. He said he expressed “sincere regret” over the “misjudged” comments. “It is evident that the British 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.”
Speaking before the resignation, Gradel said: “The implication [is] that I deliberately withheld evidence from the British Museum. How does that even make sense? It was I who reported it and insisted that they took it seriously. It is a direct attack on my personal integrity and I will not stand for it.”
The museum announced last week that it had sacked a member of staff after treasures were reported “missing, stolen or damaged”. The Metropolitan police said on Thursday they had interviewed a man in connection with the suspected thefts.
Gradel said he believed the suspected thefts occurred over at least two decades, and media reports suggested that the number of stolen items could be as high as 2,000 – with a value of millions of pounds.
Christos Tsirogiannis, an expert at identifying looted antiquities, said he suspected the British Museum had not specified how many items were missing or what they looked like because it either had incomplete or no records for some of the objects.
Tsirogiannis, who heads illicit antiquities trafficking research for the Unesco chair on threats to cultural heritage at the Ionian University in Corfu, added: “That will make it extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the British Museum to prove that these particular objects are the ones that they are missing from the collections. That will eliminate the possibility to identify them and claim them back.”
According to the museum, 4.5m of the at least 8m items in its collections have been added to its public database. About 1.64m artefacts have been photographed, although there are other images, such as illustrations, of some of the remaining objects.
Gradel said the museum’s incomplete records meant he was only able to identify three of the 70 items he had bought on eBay as belonging to its collections.
He said he contacted the museum after becoming convinced that someone with access to its collections had been stealing items not listed on its online catalogue to avoid detection.
It was only when the suspected thief got sloppy and allegedly sold some items that were traceable that Gradel said he realised the items he had bought may have been stolen.
“They also discovered Greek gold jewellery that was missing or had been physically destroyed, cut to pieces with scissors or pliers or smashed with a hammer, or the gold removed. The gold is [probably] melted down now. That’s lost for ever.”
Prof Dan Hicks, the curator of world archaeology at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, accused the British Museum of neglecting the work of making a proper catalogue of its collection.
“This isn’t a bad apple story, this is about institutional priorities,” he said. “This was a disaster waiting to happen because of the lack of investment in doing curatorial work.”
A British Museum spokesperson said: “We have placed great significance and resource on the cataloguing programme.”