High Court orders former British Museum curator to return 'stolen items'

Institution's lawyers say many hundreds of artefacts from the museum were listed for sale on eBay

The High Court in London has directed a former British Museum curator accused of stealing and damaging artifacts to return any in his possession. PA
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London's High Court has ordered a former British Museum curator who allegedly stole and damaged artefacts to return any he may have.

Dr Peter Higgs was dismissed for gross misconduct in July last year after more than 1,800 items were found to be missing, stolen or damaged.

The institution's lawyers told the court there is “compelling evidence” Dr Higgs “abused his position of trust” between at least July 2009 and January 2018, which he denies.

Mrs Justice Heather Williams made an order at the High Court on Tuesday saying Dr Higgs must list or return any stolen items within four weeks.

Barrister Daniel Burgess claimed that Dr Higgs, who has been investigated by the Metropolitan Police but not charged with an offence, stole items such as gems, jewellery, gold, silver and “intentionally” damaged artefacts by removing gold and silver from them.

It is presently believed the items were stolen or damaged and that many hundreds of them were listed for sale on eBay, using PayPal to facilitate payment, the court heard.

Most of them had been kept in a storeroom.

Artefacts at the British Museum – in pictures

“Those acts amounted to conversion or trespass, breach of his employment contract and breach of fiduciary duty,” Mr Burgess wrote in his written argument.

The lawyer said Dr Higgs intends to dispute the claim.

He told the court the defendant had access to the items and tried to “cover his tracks” by using fake names, creating false documents, manipulating the museum’s records and selling artefacts “at an undervalue”.

Dr Higgs was also accused of impeding the institution’s investigation into the thefts by suggesting a colleague delete their text and emails and refusing to pass relevant information, the court heard.

Mr Burgess said in written argument: “The items that have been stolen from the museum are of cultural and historical significance.

“There is a compelling public interest in their recovery. The museum (and that public interest) will suffer irremediable harm if the items are lost, including because delay in locating them means that they become irrecoverable.”

The court heard 356 stolen items have been returned to the museum to date.

Mrs Justice Williams also ordered the disclosure of eBay and PayPal records belonging to Dr Higgs, which may contain evidence of sales being made.

She said there was “cogent evidence” that the museum’s allegations may be correct.

The Met will also give an independent computer specialist temporary access to devices they seized during a search of Dr Higgs’s home on August 16 2023.

Dr Higgs, who worked within the Department of Greece and Rome for over 30 years before his sacking, did not attend the hearing due to poor health, the court heard.

The police investigation is continuing.

Updated: March 28, 2024, 12:54 PM