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The British Museum Finally Sues

April 3, 2024
The exterior facade of the British Museum in London.

The British Museum

It’s been some time since I’ve written about the drama that began unfolding at the British Museum.  last year. The last update I gave was in December when the museum’s deputy director resigned while an independent panel submitted a list of recommendations on changes to policy, security, and risk assessment. There’s been very little since then. But recently, the museum has taken a major step by formally naming the person they hold responsible for all this drama: former curator Peter John Higgs.

Those who have been keeping tabs on the scandal likely already know that, since the scandal broke in August 2023, British antiquities expert and former curator Peter John Higgs is suspected of having stolen thousands of antiquities from British Museum storerooms and archives. However, he hasn’t been named as the party responsible. Media sources deduced that Higgs was likely the museum employee accused since, in July, the museum fired him and his neighbors commented on the police presence at his house around the same time. But he has now been officially named in a lawsuit the British Museum is filing against him. The British Museum alleges that Higgs “abused his position of trust” as a senior curator to steal and/or damage thousands of antiquities for over a decade. At a hearing on March 26th, High Court judge Heather Williams ordered that Higgs return any museum items still in his possession within four weeks. Furthermore, the court has ordered that eBay and PayPal turn over the records associated with Higgs’s accounts, which would list the transactions for those stolen items he managed to sell online. Daniel Burgess, one of the British Museum’s lawyers, says Higgs also forged documents and manipulated museum records to sell these items. Higgs failed to attend the hearing due to poor health. He disputes the museum’s claims and denies any wrongdoing.

In addition to the British Museum’s lawsuit, there is also an ongoing police investigation. Higgs has not been charged with any crime so far. I suppose it’s good that the museum is relatively open about handling the situation. The scandal’s blow to the museum’s reputation means that everyone has to be on their best behavior. However, some have expressed their confusion as to why the British Museum is going through with legal action when it would not effectively do much. Martin Henig, an expert on gemstones who identified a stolen ancient Roman ring Higgs allegedly stole, described the lawsuit as “a case of locking the stable door after the horse has bolted”. Higgs has already lost his job, his reputation is in tatters, and most of the relevant information has already come to light. A civil suit would perhaps dredge up a bit of information but not anything substantial. The lawsuit could be seen, therefore, as a way to push complete blame onto Higgs despite that, according to Henig, “inevitably the institution bears some of the culpability for its negligence”.

The Tuesday hearing came two days before the museum named its new director to relieve interim director Mark Jones. Nicholas Cullinan, the former director of London’s National Portrait Gallery, will head the British Museum starting this summer. His tenure at the NPG saw the museum reopen last year after extensive renovations. The museum also acquired Sir Joshua Reynolds’s Portrait of Omai with the Getty Museum, as well as dropped British Petroleum as a sponsor of its annual portrait competition. Cullinan is said to have been selected with the “unanimous approval of the Board of Trustees and the agreement of the Prime Minister”. With a new director at the British Museum’s helm, hopefully the Higgs Theft can claim a legacy greater than some empty drawers and cabinets in the museum storerooms. Hopefully, this can herald a new era of greater transparency at one of the world’s greatest cultural institutions.

For previous updates on the British Museum’s Higgs Theft: