A Fright at the Museum

A Fright at the Museum

What on earth has been going on at the British Museum?

  • For two decades it appears that Greek and other classical antiquities from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD in store have gone missing, stolen or damaged. It is now estimated that around 2,000 items have gone missing. Their value is inestimable.
  • Some reappear on eBay and elsewhere “for sale“.
  • February 2021: An antiquities dealer, Ittai Gradel, notifies the museum that 3 items belonging to it – specifically pieces of Roman jewellery – are being sold on the open market. He also tells them about other items he has.
  • He is subsequently told that there is nothing to worry about because the “collection is protected“.
  • Specifically, the Deputy Director, tells him there had been a “thorough investigation“, “there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing” and security procedures are “robust“.
  • Another buyer, prompted by Mr Grabel, returns an item to the museum. So does Mr Grabel. He also gives them buyers’ names.
  • According to reports, an unnamed member of staff was investigated over allegations of “impropriety” in 2021 with the police involved but the case went no further.
  • By autumn 2022 the dealer has contacted one of the trustees. He is concerned that the museum is “sweeping matters under the carpet“. The trustee is similarly concerned and the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, is asked for information about the investigation, its timeline and conclusions. The director responds with an assurance that “there is no evidence of wrongdoing” and that the three items are “in the collection“.
  • At some point in 2022 a new audit is carried out.
  • January 2023: the Metropolitan Police’s Economic Crime Unit is called in to investigate.
  • July 2023: Peter Higgs, 56, the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period is dismissed after the management learn that treasures have been reported “missing, stolen or damaged“. In 2002 he had told a reporter looking at how treasures were stored in the vaults: “It’s chaos down here.
  • August 2023: The Director expresses frustration that the dealer had not said more in 2021 and implies that this impeded the museum’s investigation. The dealer says this is a lie.
  • The Director resigns, apologises for his accusation against the dealer and withdraws it.
  • He also says that it was “evident” that the museum did not respond “comprehensively” to warnings of thefts in 2021.
  • The Deputy-Director also resigns. Or is “asked to step back from his duties“.
  • The usual statement of regret and praise for their departed directors’ abilities is issued by the trustees.
  • A circular firing squad starts being formed at the museum. It is reported that the trustees are asking why it took 8 months for them to be informed of the allegations. The Chair of Trustees, George Osborne says that the previous statement that there had been a “thorough investigation” and “no thefts” was “obviously completely wrong.” Doubtless intending to be helpful, he also says that “groupthink” among the museum’s bosses may have been responsible for them not believing that an insider could be stealing. A reminder that Peter Higgs has denied wrongdoing and no-one has been charged. A reminder also that improprieties in the art and antiquities world have been well-known for years and might be expected to be known to museum bosses.
  • The trustees also announce an independent review of events and security to be headed by a former museum trustee, Nigel Boardman, an ex-City lawyer, last heard of when appointed by Boris Johnson to head up the inquiry into the Greensill affair, and Lucy D’Orsi, Chief Constable of the British Transport Police. The actual or potential conflict of interest arising from having a former museum trustee review the activities of the museum and, inevitable, its governance over many years and how this might – or appear to – affect the review’s independence does not appear to have occurred to anyone. Nor it is immediately obvious what particular skills the British Transport Police bring to such a review.
  • The Chair of Trustees says that the process for finding a new director will start.

George, sweetie: I have news for you. You need to find: 

(1) a new director; 

(2) a new deputy; 

(3) a new curator of Greek antiquities; 

(4) a new head of security and someone who knows how to carry out “thorough” investigations; 

(5) someone to liaise with the police – a full-time job; 

(6) some bloody good legal advice given the various statutory obligations the Museum, its management and trustees are under;

(7) someone to run and catalogue the Museum’s vaults and store rooms. A notebook, pen and camera would be a start. Perhaps even some clearly labelled boxes.

(8) someone to say with a straight face, repeatedly, that the Elgin Marbles are safe with the Museum. Actually, you could do this: you’ve got the brass neck and have had plenty of practice saying the scarcely believable (remember “we’re all in this together”?)

And that’s for starters. A full-time Chair would not go amiss at this point either.

There are plenty of questions to be asked and, doubtless, more to be revealed. Still, for now, could I make this plea? Will the last public organisation in the UK run even remotely sensibly, competently and lawfully, please wave and say hello.

Just so that we can be reminded of what this looks like.

We might even put it in a case for display in …. oh!


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