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Located in London, the British Museum is more than 260 years old and attracts visitors from around the world.
Located in London, the British Museum is more than 260 years old and attracts visitors from around the world.

British Museum’s reputation challenged over jewellery theft

The British Museum is facing an uphill battle to repair its international reputation as a custodian of priceless jewellery as further details emerge about a 20-year-long ransacking.

In August, the British Museum announced that an employee had been dismissed after gold jewellery and gemstones were discovered missing, stolen, and damaged.

A statement suggested that none of the jewellery had recently been on display and was kept for academic purposes.

Since that announcement, the situation has only worsened for the British Museum, with a suspected 2,000 items stolen.

It’s believed that the thefts took place over two decades and that the museum was alerted to the alleged sale of stolen items in 2021 but failed to take action.

Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, has resigned over the handling of the suspected widespread theft after holding the role for eight years.

In a statement, Fischer said he took accountability for the museum’s inability to prevent the theft: “It is evident that the British Museum did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021 and to the problem that has now fully emerged.”

“The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director.”

Catharine Titi, Associate professor of the French National Centre for Scientific Research
Catharine Titi, Associate professor of the French National Centre for Scientific Research
"The fact that it took so long to discover the thefts also raises the question of what else might have gone missing without a trace."
Catharine Titi, French National Centre for Scientific Research

Mark Jones has been appointed as interim director following Fischer’s resignation.

Ittai Gradel, a British-Danish antiquities dealer, told The Guardian that hundreds of missing objects had never been appropriately catalogued by the museum, making recovery difficult.

“As far as I understand, these individual items were not described, only a sum total,” he said.

“So, 935 gemstones are missing, and the problem is, if they can’t be identified, how can they return to the museum?”

Gradel spent years appealing to the museum to investigate, revealing his suspicions via an intermediary in 2020 before sharing a dossier of evidence in 2021 demonstrating that items were being sold on eBay.

The director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, Despina Koutsoumba, has called for the return of Parthenon Marbles, stating that they are ‘no longer safe’ at the British Museum.

Curator of world archaeology at Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum, Professor Dan Hicks, has accused the British Museum of neglecting the crucial process of cataloguing of items.

“This isn’t a bad apple story, this is about institutional priorities,” he said.

“This was a disaster waiting to happen because of the lack of investment in doing curatorial work.”

More to come?

Catharine Titi, associate professor of the French National Centre for Scientific Research, said that recent statements concerning the theft raise more questions than answers.

“Now the British Museum is trying to repair the dent to its reputation, which comes at an inconvenient time when the museum is hoping to raise £1 billion ($AU1.95 billion) for much-needed renovation work,” she writes for The Conversation.

“About half of the museum’s eight million items are uncatalogued, and this lack of an inventory has certainly facilitated the thefts. The fact that it took so long to discover the thefts also raises the question of what else might have gone missing without a trace.”

She continued by suggesting that the British Museum’s troubles may be an indication that other prestigious institutions may have undiscovered issues.

“Yet one can’t help but wonder: Do the museum’s current woes have other museum directors fretting with anxiety? How many museums have uncatalogued items in their storerooms?” Titi asked.

“When a museum such as the Louvre explains that its database has entries for almost 500,000 works of art, is that its entire collection or just a percentage of its collection? In a great number of cases, we simply don’t know.”

Located in London, the British Museum is more than 260 years old and attracts visitors from around the world.

More reading
Jewellery and gemstones stolen from British Museum
Sentences handed down for Green Vault jewellery heist
Stolen Cambodian royal jewellery discovered in London
Long-lost jewellery discovered in shark-infested waters
Millions in jewellery mysteriously missing
Digging up jewellery: How ancient artisans help map human history

 











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