The newly recovered objects add to the 351 that were returned by the dealer and collector Ittai Gradel
By Claudio Divizia
The British Museum has successfully recovered a further 268 stolen objects, following the shocking theft of Greek and Roman antiquities by a curator. Most of the works taken were gems, although there were also pieces of jewellery and other items. The thefts went on for more than 20 years before they were detected.
Around 2,000 pieces were either stolen or severely damaged, in the most serious incident involving a UK museum curator in well over 50 years. Last July Peter Higgs, the acting head of the Greece and Rome department, was dismissed for gross misconduct.
Ittai Gradel, a Danish collector and dealer who acquired 351 pieces without realising they were stolen, has already returned those he had bought. Gradel is the person who blew the whistle on the theft, although his warnings were initially ignored by the museum. His revelations led to the departure of the museum’s director Hartwig Fischer and the deputy director Jonathan Williams.
As The Art Newspaper reported, most of the items acquired by Gradel were handed over to the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen, which facilitated their return to London. The latest round of 268 recovered objects came from other sources.
The British Museum trustees decided last December to pursue civil litigation against Higgs, seeking “court orders to be able to access information about the sale of items from the collection”. Legal action was initiated in March in the High Court, to give the museum access to Higgs’ eBay and PayPal accounts, in order to help identify purchasers of the stolen items.
The museum has to date secured the return of a total of 626 pieces (351 from Gradel, the 268 announced from other sources later this year, plus seven others of which details are unavailable), leaving around 874 still missing. Of these, a museum spokesman says that it is working on “new leads” for a further 100, with investigations presumably assisted by the eBay and PayPal records.
George Osborne, the museum’s chairman, points out that if the 100 are recovered, this represents “almost half the stolen items”. Some recoveries have taken place in the United States, although most were in Europe.
Osborne added: “Few expected to see this day, and even I had my doubts. When we announced the devastating news that objects had been stolen from our collection, people understandably assumed that was it—we were unlikely to ever see more than a handful of them again.”
A police investigation into Higgs is underway, but so far it remains only an inquiry, without an arrest or charges. His son, Greg, denied that his father was involved in the thefts. He told the media last year: “I don’t think it [his departure] was fair. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.”
A small display with ten of the recovered items is still on show. Rediscovering gems: Small wonders, big impressions runs until 6 June. Anyone with further information is urged to contact the British Museum.