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THE English Museum recovered part of the 2,000 missing and stolen items of its collection, but the London institution faces additional calls for repatriation of artifacts. At the same time, the chairman of the board admitted that the reputation of the museum had suffered from the scandal.
Museum president George Osborne said “approximately 2,000” of the missing, stolen or damaged items in his collection are currently under investigation, but some have been recovered, describing the situation as “a silver lining in a dark cloud”.
“Some members of the antiques community are actively cooperating with us,” Osborne told BBC economics editor Simon Jack in an interview on BBC Radio 4.
While Osborne said he was confident ‘honest people’ would return some of the missing gold jewellery, semi-precious stones and glass pieces, the former UK chancellor and editor admitted to the BBC that “others cannot”.
“We believe we have been victims of thefts over a long period of time and frankly more could have been done to prevent them,” said Osborne, who was appointed museum president in June 2021.
A significant problem in recovery efforts is the number of objects that have not been “properly cataloged and recorded”, Osborne noting that “someone who knows what is not recorded has a great advantage in removing” these artifacts.
“It has certainly damaged the reputation of the British Museum, that’s for sure, and that’s why I apologize on its behalf,” Osborne said, acknowledging the need to improve security at the museum.
The comments follow the shock of the international arts community over news reports detailing the extent of the museum’s loss, which some experts have called “the worst in modern history.” The British Museum’s initial announcement on August 16 said the missing and stolen items dated from the 15th century BCE to the 19th century and were mainly kept for academic and research purposes. None of them had been exhibited recently.
The museum’s statement also said it has launched an independent review of its security protocols and is prepared to take legal action against the former staff member. However, he did not specify how many items were under investigation or name the staff member who was fired.
Soon after, reports from various media outlets quickly identified the fired person as Peter Higgs, veteran curator of Greek antiquitiesnoting that up to 2,000 items had been stolen and $64,000 item was listed on eBay for just $51. Senior officials, including Osborne and the museum director Hartwig Fischeralso received detailed emails from Dutch art dealer Ittai Gradel 2021 flight warning.
Multiple reports indicate that assistant manager Jonathan Williams also corresponded with Gradel on several occasions in 2021 and concluded that the allegations were “completely unfounded”.
On August 25, the museum also announced that Williams had agreed to “voluntarily step down from normal duties until the independent review of the thefts at the museum is complete.”
osborne said BBC Radio 4 “more could have been done” after Gradel first raised concerns about the thefts in February 2021. But when asked why Gradel’s emails weren’t taken seriously, Osborne said that it was “possible” that “groupthink” among senior museum staff meant they “couldn’t believe there was an insider” who was stealing artifacts.
The scale of the thefts and questions about the museum’s long-term security concerns have also prompted Greek officials and Nigeria to strengthen their calls for the repatriation of Parthenon marbles and the extensive collection of Bronzes from Benin.
THE world timea tabloid state-run Chinese daily, also published an editorial today formally requesting the British Museum to “return to China free of charge all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels and to refrain from adopting a resistant, protracted and superficial attitude”.
THE world time noted that although the British Museum’s collection has 23,000 Chinese relics, of which around 2,000 are on long-term display, 1.5 million works of Chinese art and objects were looted from the country by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. These items were eventually sold to museums and private collections across Europe.