FBI assisting with investigation into missing British Museum objects

A senior curator was dismissed after more than 1,500 objects were unaccounted for last year

LONDON, ENGLAND - NOVEMBER 22: Sections of the Parthenon Marbles also known as the Elgin Marbles are displayed at The British Museum on November 22, 2018 in London, England. (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
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The FBI is investigating the sale of hundreds of objects that are believed to have been stolen from the British Museum.

The museum announced last year that more than 1,500 items were missing, stolen or damaged – many of which were thought to have been listed for sale on eBay, using PayPal to enable payment.

The US domestic intelligence service reportedly assisted with the return of 268 items after they were bought by a collector in Washington.

According to a BBC report, the FBI contacted one buyer to ask about two pieces he had bought on eBay, telling him the bureau was assisting the Metropolitan Police investigate missing or stolen items from the museum.

The buyer said he no longer held the items and did not believe they had been traced down by authorities.

The British Museum said 626 of the missing items were recovered while more than 100 were identified but had yet to be returned.

The British Museum through the years - in pictures

Most of the missing items were reportedly uncatalogued and the museum is seeking ways to prove its ownership.

The museum believes senior curator Dr Peter Higgs, who was dismissed for gross misconduct in July last year, took them.

Lawyers for the institution, which has brought a civil case against Dr Higgs, told London's High Court in March there was “compelling evidence” the former curator “abused his position of trust” between at least July 2009 and January 2018, which he denies.

He was ordered to 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.

The museum claims Dr Higgs, who worked in the Department of Greece and Rome for more than 30 years before he was sacked, made an estimated £100,000 from the sale of the items.

Dr Higgs did not attend the hearing due to poor health. The police investigation is continuing.

What is missing?

The museum is not sharing full details of the lost and damaged items on the advice of recovery specialists.

“What we can share is the type of material that we believe has been stolen,” said the museum on its website.

“The vast majority of the items are from the Department of Greece and Rome and mainly fall into two categories: Gems and jewellery.”

Types of missing objects include gems, cameos or intaglios, which are often set in rings or other settings, or left unmounted and unfinished.

They date across antiquity, especially from the Late Bronze Age, from about 15th to 11th century BCE, and the Hellenistic and Roman periods.

“While the majority of the items are gems and jewellery, our investigations suggest that there are also a number of other types of materials amongst the missing objects – such as small sculptural fragments and Greek pottery,” the museum said.

Updated: May 27, 2024, 7:19 PM