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British Museum Update: Suspected Thief Identified

August 21, 2023
The exterior facade of the British Museum in London.

The British Museum

A quick update on the situation developing at the British Museum: I wrote only a few days ago about how the British Museum announced they had fired an employee accused of stealing gold jewelry and semi-precious stones from museum storage. That individual’s identity is now public knowledge, and it wasn’t just any ordinary employee. The person accused of stealing from the museum is none other than Peter John Higgs, the British Museum’s head curator of Greek and Roman art, considered one of Britain’s foremost authorities on Mediterranean antiquities.

Higgs worked at the British Museum for nearly 30 years before his dismissal. Evidence suggests that he took the stolen items from the museum’s storerooms over several years to sell them on eBay. Suspicions first arose in 2016, when another antiquities expert first spotted items for sale online that seemed similar to items from the Townley Collection, consisting of Greco-Roman artifacts bequeathed to the British Museum in 1805. The person selling them used the username ‘sultan1966’, the handle Higgs uses on Twitter. The British Museum’s online catalogue did not feature many stolen items. However, investigators soon found catalogued items for sale online and began checking the images against those the museum had. Some artifacts are worth tens of thousands, but the eBay listings had them up for sale for far less than that. One first- or second-century Roman onyx cameo carving would normally sell for £25K to £50K. It had a £40 reserve price. Another cameo carving appears to have been removed from its gold mount, damaging it in the process. These pieces did not sell at the time, but it is unknown if they sold later. This anonymous antiquities expert claimed to have notified the British Museum of these findings in June 2020. Neighbors say they saw police at the Higgs residence last Wednesday morning, likely about the case. Higgs and members of his family have denied the accusations.

The theft’s announcement and the suspect’s identification come weeks after the British Museum director Hartwig Fischer surprisingly announced he would be stepping down next year. Some speculate that the thefts played a role in this decision, though Fischer denies it. Art Recovery International, an organization dedicated to investigating the theft of art and cultural heritage, joined a chorus of critics by taking advantage of the situation to comment on another ongoing issue at the British Museum: that of returning stolen cultural heritage to their countries of origin. The most famous of these stolen pieces are the Parthenon Marbles, which the British Museum has kept for nearly two centuries. Those who oppose the marbles’ return to Greece often say that the statues and reliefs are better held in London since the British Museum is incredibly prestigious and well-funded. However, this most recent security breach pokes holes in those arguments, with the Art Recovery International official Twitter account commenting, “Perhaps the Parthenon Marbles are not as safe in the UK after all.”