Peter John Higgs, a prominent curator who was employed at the British Museum for 30 years, has been identified in the UK by two broadsheet media outletsas the person alleged to be responsible for stealing priceless artefacts from the museum’s collection, The Daily Telegraph newspaper reports.
Higgs is suspected to have operated for years without detection and to have spirited away uncategorised items from the museum’s collection before selling them on the e-commerce site eBay. The report in The Daily Telegraph newspaper states that items from the museum’s collection first appeared on eBay as early as 2016.
Higgs allegedly took small items of gold jewellery, as well as precious gems, from the collection, some of which date back to Ancient Rome. The objects in question are thought to be worth tens of millions of pounds.
The museum yesterday announced an independent review into why Higgs was allegedly able to remove items from the collection without detection; the review is sure to ask difficult questions about what appears to be a massive security breach. Senior figures from the UK’s museum sector are today asking if the British Museum can still be considered a responsible custodian of its collection, which includes many items of contested provenance.
The law firm Art Recovery International, which specialises in restitution issues, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Perhaps the Parthenon Marbles are not safe in the UK after all”.
Higgs was first employed by the museum in 1993 and worked in a senior curatorial position as the museum’s head of department for Greece and Rome. He is known as one of the museum’s so-called ”monuments men”, and was the lead curator of the exhibition Ancient Greeks: athletes, warriors and heroes, which was staged at the museum in 2021 and is currently on tour.
The Daily Telegraph report states that an unnamed antiquities expert informed the museum of the illicit activity three years ago, but the museum only acted in dismissing Higgs earlier this year. It is now taking the decision to go public with the news, which comes shortly after the announcement that director Hartwig Fischer is leaving his post at the museum early next year.
Higgs was identified as the alleged thief when he began to sell items that, unlike earlier pieces, had been comprehensively catalogued by the museum and could thus be traced back to its digital inventory. Although he operated under a pseudonym on eBay, a portal on his Paypal account linked to his Twitter feed, on which he used his real name.
On the British Museum’s website, Higgs is photographed with a 2,000-year-old Libyan statue, which was in the process of being returned to its country of origin after being trafficked through Europe.
In the Telegraph report, Higgs’s family said he is innocent of all wrongdoing and have vowed to clear his name. No arrests have yet been made, although the British Museum has committed to pursue legal action in the event of an arrest.