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  • Louise Wagon

The British Museum in turmoil

Embroiled in a theft scandal, the British Museum has sacked its chief curator of Greek and Roman art on suspicion of selling objects on eBay over the years.

Photo du British Museum

According to an internal investigation carried out by the British Museum and revealed by the Daily Telegraph, Peter Higgs, Chief Curator of Greek and Roman Art, is suspected of stealing and selling over 1,500 objects from the museum's collection on eBay. These artifacts were often sold for a fraction of their real value. For example, a Roman object, dating back over two millennia and estimated at £50,000, was reportedly sold for £40 on the online trading site.

Peter Higgs, who worked as a curator at the British Museum for 30 years, was sacked earlier this year, after the museum discovered the disappearance of numerous objects, including gold jewelry and precious and semi-precious stones. According to the Daily Telegraph, the number of objects allegedly stolen by the curator was actually "closer to 2,000", with an estimated value in the tens of millions of pounds.

The internal investigation revealed that Peter Higgs had been operating under the pseudonym "sultan1966" on eBay, since 2016. He was identified after a user found his Paypal account linked to his Twitter feed, on which he had mentioned his real name and position at the museum. The identification was enabled when Peter Higgs tried to sell objects from the collection that had been correctly catalogued, meaning they were traceable in the inventory.

The British Museum now faces the complex task of determining exactly which objects have disappeared from its collection. Police will need to obtain records from eBay and other auction sites to verify details of all sales made or attempted by Peter Higgs. The buyers of the objects will also have to be contacted. "If any buyers are based outside the UK, this could hamper investigations," says the British police.

By 2021, British Museum officials had been alerted to the possibility of a thief among their staff. An antique gem dealer based in Denmark contacted the museum to report the sale of three gems from the museum's collection on eBay. According to correspondence viewed by BBC News between the art dealer and the museum, Deputy Director Jonathan Williams replied in July 2021 that "the objects concerned are all accounted for and with no suggestion of wrongdoing by any member of museum staff". He added that there had been a "thorough investigation" and that the "collection is protected".

Many experts believe that the British Museum should have acted more quickly and involved the police as soon as it was informed of the alleged thefts. "To be honest, it's quite shocking," Christopher Marinello, CEO of law firm Art Recovery Internation, told the Guardian. "We get reports of thefts from museums all over the world every day. But this is the British Museum, one of the largest and best-funded museums in the world."

The news comes just weeks after the museum's director of eight years, Hartwig Fischer, abruptly announced that he would be stepping down next year. No arrests have yet been made by the police.

The British Museum's tarnished reputation

Fingered for its security failings, criticized for not taking warnings seriously, the British Museum's admission of prolonged inaction appears to its critics to be symptomatic of an arrogance recently illustrated by the debates over the restitution of the Parthenon marbles and Benin bronzes.

Arguing against demands for the return of artifacts looted by the British, the museum's management has always maintained that its collections are preserved and protected in an exemplary fashion.

The Museums Association seized on these twists and turns to issue a statement, saying that while thefts by employees were in their view "incredibly rare" – a claim disputed by some in the antiquities investigating community – "systemic underfunding of the sector over the last ten years" impacts on the proper implementation of internal security measures and investigative procedures.


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