The director of the British Museum has expressed “frustration” that the extent of any appropriation of artefacts from its collection was not apparent when concerns were first raised in 2021.
In his first public comment since the museum disclosed last week that items were missing, stolen or damaged, Hartwig Fischer said at “every step my priority has been the care of the incredible British Museum collection”.
He confirmed that allegations that items from the museum’s world-class collections were missing had first been “brought to us” in 2021.
“We took them incredibly seriously, and immediately set up an investigation,” he said in a statement. “Concerns were only raised about a small number of items, and our investigation concluded that those items were all accounted for.
“We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.
“In 2022, we embarked on a full audit – which revealed a bigger problem. I reported my concerns to the trustees, and together we agreed to call in the police. We also then began the disciplinary process that resulted in a member of staff being dismissed.
“I am clear that at every step my priority has been the care of the incredible British Museum collection, and that continues today – with our commitment to learning lessons from the independent review, our determination to help the police with their criminal investigation, and our focus on the recovery programme.”
Fischer – who announced last month he was stepping down as the museum’s director – issued his statement after Ittai Gradel, a Dutch antiquities dealer, said he had bought scores of artefacts online.
Gradel alerted the British Museum to potential wrongdoing two years ago, and has called for Fischer and his deputy Jonathan Williams to be sacked.
According to a report in the Telegraph, Gradel bought about 70 items on eBay, starting in 2014.
He bought the items for modest sums, but sold them on for much higher amounts. The Telegraph reported that he had given the museum and the police – who are investigating the thefts – details of the buyers who bought 10 items from him, and had returned the rest to the museum.
Another 150 items he bought from a third party whose origins are uncertain because they do not appear in the museum’s catalogue will also be returned.
According to correspondence seen by the BBC, Williams responded to Gradel’s email, saying there was “no suggestion of any wrongdoing” and the “collection was protected”.
Gradel has accused the museum of “sweeping it all under the carpet”.
Peter Higgs, an expert in Greek antiquities, worked for the British Museum for 30 years before being sacked last month. He has not made any comment but his son has denied his father’s involvement in any wrongdoing, saying last week: “He’s lost his job and his reputation and I don’t think it was fair. It couldn’t have been [him]. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.”
Since the beginning of this year, the Metropolitan police have been investigating the disappearance of items from the museum. No arrests have been made. The museum has also ordered an independent review of its security.
The museum has not specified how many items have been stolen or detailed what the missing items are, saying only that they were “small pieces” including “gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD”.
Media reports have suggested that the thefts happened over at least two decades and that the number of stolen items could be as many as 2,000, with a value of millions of pounds.
On Wednesday, Tim Loughton, the chair of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Museum, accused Greece of “blatant opportunism” in claiming that ancient treasures such as the Parthenon marbles were not safe in the British Museum.
Loughton said last week’s disclosure of stolen and missing items was “damaging” but that the museum’s staff and trustees were taking the matter seriously.
Despina Koutsoumba, the head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, said the British Museum was not protecting its treasures.
“We want to tell the British Museum that they cannot any more say that Greek culture heritage is more protected in the British Museum,” she told the BBC. “It is obvious that it is very well protected in Greece and not in the British Museum.”
The Greek government has frequently demanded the return of the Parthenon marbles held by the British Museum. The ancient sculptures were taken in the 19th century.
Loughton told the BBC: “What is particularly damaging is [the] blatant opportunism of the Greeks and others saying ‘Oh no, the British Museum is not safe …’ It’s incredibly rare that things go missing.”
“For reassurance, people want to know the extent of the objects which have disappeared, what investigations took place at the time when various reports came in and what is being done now because otherwise [it’s] getting out of hand.”
Loughton said the disappearance of items was “a serious matter” but “it’s not the heist of the Mona Lisa”.
Lina Mendoni, the Greek culture minister, has also raised questions about the security of items in the museum’s collections. The investigation “reinforces the permanent and fair demand of our country for the definitive return and reunification” of the Parthenon sculptures, she said.
The British Museum has come under mounting pressure to return items in its collection to their countries of origin. The Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin marbles, were taken from Athens by Lord Elgin and later bought by the British government and placed in the British Museum.
In March, the Vatican returned three fragments of Athens’ Parthenon temple it had kept for centuries.