Artnews_ The British Museum has recovered some of the 2,000 missing and stolen items from its collection, but the London institution is facing additional calls for repatriation of artifacts. Meanwhile, its board chair admitted that the museum’s reputation has suffered as a result of the scandal.
Museum chairman George Osborne said that “around 2,000” of the missing, stolen and damaged items from its collection are now being investigated but that some of them had been recovered, describing the situation as “a silver lining to a dark cloud.”
“Some members of the antiquarian community are actively cooperating with us,” Osborne told BBC business editor Simon Jack during an interview on BBC Radio 4.
While Osborne expressed confidence that “honest people” would return some of the missing gold jewelry, semi-precious stones, and glass pieces, the former UK chancellor and news editor acknowledged to theBBC that “others may not.”
“We believe we have been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and frankly more could have been done to prevent them,” said Osborne, who was appointed the museum’s chair in June 2021.
A significant issue in the recovery efforts is how many items were not “properly catalogued and registered,” with Osborne noting “someone with knowledge of what is not registered has a big advantage in removing” those artifacts.
“It has certainly been damaging to the British Museum’s reputation, that is a statement of the obvious, and that is why I’m apologizing on its behalf,” Osborne said, acknowledging the need to improve security at the museum.
The comments follow shock from the international art 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 stated that the missing and stolen items were from the 15th century BCE to the 19th century, and were primarily kept for academic and research purposes. None of them had been recently on display.
The museum’s statement also said that it had launched an independent review of its security protocols and was prepared to taking legal action against the former staff member. However, it did not specify how many items were being investigated or name the staff member who was fired.
Soon after, reports from various outlets quickly identified the sacked individual as veteran Greek antiquities curator Peter Higgs, noting that up to 2,000 items had been stolen and that an item worth $64,000 had been listed on eBay for as little as $51. Senior officials, including Osborne and museum director Hartwig Fischer, were also sent detailed emails from Dutch art dealer Ittai Gradel warning about the thefts in 2021.
As a result of the reports, museum director Hartwig Fischer announced on August 25 he would immediately step down. Fischer had previously announced that he would leave his position in 2024.
Several reports said deputy director Jonathan Williams also corresponded with Gradel several times in 2021 and concluded the allegations were “wholly unfounded”.
On August 25, the museum also announced that Williams had agreed to “voluntarily step back from his normal duties until the independent review into the thefts at the Museum has concluded.”
Osborne told BBC Radio 4 “more could have been done” after concerns about the thefts were first raised by Gradel in February 2021. But when he was asked why Gradel’s emails were not taken seriously, Osborne said it was “possible” that “groupthink” among the museum’s senior staff meant they “could not believe that there was an insider” stealing artifacts.
The extent of the thefts and questions about the museum’s long-term security issues also prompted officials from Greece and Nigeria to strengthen their calls for repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles and the institution’s large collection of Benin Bronzes.
TheGlobal Times, a Chinese daily tabloid newspaper run by the state, also published an editorial today formally requesting the British Museum “return all Chinese cultural relics acquired through improper channels to China free of charge, and to refrain from adopting a resistant, protracted and perfunctory attitude”.
TheGlobal Times noted that while the British Museum’s collection has 23,000 Chinese relics, with about 2,000 of them on long-term display, 1.5 million Chinese artworks and artifactswere looted from the country by British and French troops during the Second Opium War in 1860. Those items were eventually sold to museums and private collections across Europe.