The theft of 2,000 gems at the British Museum began 20 to 25 years ago, according to George Osborne, the chairman of the trustees. This shocking news was revealed yesterday to the House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Committee.
Following the theft, it has now been determined that that the museum has 2,400,000 uncatalogued or partially catalogued objects which need to be properly documented. It was the failure to have recorded the gems which made it possible for an insider to gradually steal them from the storeroom without being detected for decades.
Cataloguing will take an estimated five years and cost £10m. Osborne, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that the government has not been approached for financial help. No details of how this work will be funded were given.
The Commons committee was told that the museum has one million unregistered (uncatalogued) items that needed to recorded; 300,000 that are registered, but not digitised; and 1.1m that are digitised, but not photographed. Altogether the museum holds eight million objects, but of these two million do not realistically require cataloguing, including one million stone tool fragments from North Africa.
On 16 August the British Museum announced that it had suffered the theft of gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. Nine days later director Hartwig Fischer offered his immediate resignation. His deputy, Jonathan Williams, also stepped down.
Mark Jones, the new interim museum director, also gave evidence to the Commons committee. He said that the 2,000 uncatalogued objects stolen were "really known only to one person, and that person decided to take advantage of that”.
Osborne admitted that the situation was difficult: “trust is completely abused—as I think will become clear in the coming months, quite a lot of steps were taken to conceal this, and it wasn’t just that these things were taken; records were altered and the like”.
Although the museum is not naming the individual, he has been identified by the media as Peter Higgs, a curator for 30 years and recently acting keeper of the Greece and Rome department. Higgs was dismissed in July this year and has been interviewed by the police, but has not been arrested or charged. His son maintains his father’s innocence.
Yesterday Osborne told the Commons committee that title to 350 of the 2,000 stolen objects was transferred back to the museum on 13 October, either by or with the assistance of the Danish dealer and specialist Ittai Gradel, who first blew the whistle on the theft more than two years ago.
The museum now plans to hold a display based around the 350 returned pieces, probably next year, unless legal obstacles arise. As Osborne said, “we have the makings of a good exhibition that was not previously planned”. What he did not add is that an additional benefit will be to alert visitors, specialists and the art trade to the type of items which had been stolen, hopefully increasing the chances of further recoveries.
Osborne was scathing in his criticism of the museum’s handling by Fischer and Williams of the initial theft allegations. He told the Commons committee: “In 2021, the museum received an email from a reputable antiquarian dealer [Gradel] who said, ‘Things are being stolen, they are for sale, and I think I have bought them,’ and who, by the way, identified an individual he believed was responsible”. Osborne is disturbed that the museum failed to make proper use of this information: “That, to my mind, is a big question for the museum, which the independent review needs to properly address.” The review, established by the trustees, is expected to report in December.
In the meantime, the museum is being headed by Jones, who anticipates he will be in charge for just six months. The job of permanent director is expected to be advertised later this month.
Jones admitted that what has occurred is “shocking”. When asked about the reputational damage on the museum, he responded that it is “significant”.
In a separate British Museum statement yesterday, Jones offered assurances that “we have taken steps to improve security and are now confident that a theft of this kind can never happen again”.
Jones added: “We cannot and must not assume that the security of the collection, in a wider sense, can be achieved simply by locking everything away. It is my belief that the single most important response to the thefts is to increase access, because the better a collection is known—and the more it is used—the sooner any absences are noticed.”
Maria Balshaw, the director of Tate, also gave evidence to the Commons committee. She commented: “the international museum community was both shocked and deeply dismayed that something like this could have happened.”