The new reports state that many of the stolen gems have been recovered in the United States, while another important gem has been tracked down to a German collector
Photo: Javen
George Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum (BM), has told the BBC that he is “100% certain that we’ve got our man”, speaking about the theft or severe damage of 2,000 antique gems from the collection. “We know who has stolen these items,” he added. Osborne also says that “missing coins were found in his house”.
In a High Court hearing in London on 26 March, the museum began a civil action against Peter Higgs, a curator employed from 1993 until last July. He had risen to become the interim keeper of the department of Greece and Rome. The stolen items went missing over a period that may have been as long as 20 years.
Higgs’s son Greg has denied that his father was involved in the thefts. He told the Daily Mail last year: “He’s not done anything. I don’t think it [his departure] was fair. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.” No one has been arrested or charged over the thefts at the time of writing.
The court was told that Higgs had “not filed any evidence” and that he was said to be “suffering from severe mental strain and is seeking counselling for mental health and depression and is unable to respond effectively to the proceedings”. It is believed that he is maintaining his innocence.
The BBC programme Thief at the British Museum, presented by the broadcaster’s culture editor Katie Razzall separately for radio and television, reports that many of the stolen gems have been recovered in the United States. A group of 268 items, which were returned in the past few weeks, had come from a single collector in Washington, DC, who had not realised they originated from the BM. The FBI assisted the operation.
In addition, Tonio Birbiglia, a New Orleans antiquities dealer, unwittingly bought two gems on eBay for £42 and £170— modest sums which bear no relationship to their actual financial value. Another important gem, meanwhile, has been tracked down to a German collector, who unwittingly acquired the 2nd century AD obsidian head of Hercules. This was recently lent to an exhibition at the Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum (German Gemstone Museum) in Idar-Oberstein.
The BBC’s main informant was Ittai Gradel, a respected Danish collector and dealer, who blew the whistle and reported his concerns to the BM in February 2021. His warnings to the museum’s director Hartwig Fischer and deputy Jonathan Williams were largely ignored for well over a year. It was not until the then new BM chairman, Osborne, was informed in December 2022 that action was finally taken. Higgs was dismissed, Fischer resigned and Williams left.
At present around 874 items are still missing and around 500 others have been damaged. The losses are mainly classical Greek and Roman gems (including cameos and intaglios), along with gold rings, earrings and other jewellery. A BM spokesman says that it is working on “new leads” for 100 stolen items.