The director of the British Museum said on Saturday the museum had recovered some of the 2,000 items believed to have been stolen by an insider, but admitted the 264-year-old institution did not have all the records of its vast collection.
Chairman of the board, George Osborne, acknowledged that the museum’s reputation had been tarnished by its poor management of thefts, which prompted the resignation of its director and raised questions about security and leadership.
Osborne told the BBC on Saturday that 2,000 stolen items was a “very tentative figure” and that staff were working to identify any that were missing. Items include gold jewelry, gemstones, and 3,500-year-old antiques. None had been on public display recently.
He said the museum was working with the antiques community and art salvage experts to recover the items.
“We believe we have been victims of theft for a long time and frankly we could have done more to prevent it,” he said. “But I promise you this: it’s a mess we’re going to clean up.”
Museum director Hartwig Fischer announced his resignation on Friday, apologizing for not taking seriously enough an art historian’s warning that items from his collection were being sold on eBay. Assistant manager Jonathan Williams also said he would stand down while a review of the incident is conducted.
In early 2021, British-Danish historian and art dealer Ittai Gradel contacted museum officials to express his suspicions, but they assured him that all was well. However, earlier this year, the museum called in the London Metropolitan Police.
The museum fired a staff member and took legal action against him, but no arrests were made.
Gradel told The Associated Press on Friday that he became suspicious after buying one of three items a seller had listed for sale on eBay. Gradel traced the two items he did not purchase back to the museum. The object he purchased was not listed in the museum’s catalog, but he discovered that it belonged to a man who entrusted his entire collection to the museum in 1814.
The historian said he found the seller’s identity through PayPal. It turned out to be the museum staff member who has since been fired.
Gradelsaid Williams had assured him that a thorough investigation had revealed no irregularities. “He basically told me to vent and mind my own business.”
Fischer said in his resignation statement that “it is evident that the British Museum has not responded as fully as it should have to the 2021 warnings”. He also apologized to Gradel.
The thefts and the museum’s clumsy response plunged the institution into crisis. The 18th century museum in Bloomsbury, central London, is one of Britain’s biggest tourist attractions, visited by 6 million people a year. They come to view a collection ranging from Egyptian mummies and ancient Greek statues, to Viking treasures, to scrolls containing 12th-century Chinese poetry and masks created by the Indigenous peoples of Canada.
These thefts have been seized by those who want the museum to return artefacts taken around the world during the time of the British Empire, including friezes that once adorned the Parthenon in Athens and Benin bronzes from Africa. from West.
“We want to say to the British Museum that they can no longer say that Greek (cultural) heritage is more protected in the British Museum,” Despina Koutsoumba, director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, told the BBC this week.
Osborne, the former head of Britain’s Treasury, said the museum had launched an independent study led by a lawyer and a senior police officer. He added that the company had also built a state-of-the-art off-site storage facility so the collection was no longer housed in an “18th century basement”.
“I don’t personally believe there was any kind of deliberate cover-up, although review might reveal that to be the case,” he said.
“But was there a potential groupthink in the museum at the time, way up in the museum, that just couldn’t believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn’t believe that one of the members of the staff did this? Yes, it is completely possible.