The Memo: FBI enters search for missing British Museum artefacts

Group 723.png

FBI enters search for missing British Museum artefacts

Madeleine Clarke - 3 June 2024

The FBI is investigating the sale of items which are suspected to have been stolen from the British Museum to buyers in the USA. This is the latest development in the scandal surrounding the theft of items from the museum’s collection and their sale on eBay. 

In March, the British Museum began its civil court case against Peter Higgs, the man accused of stealing over 1,800 items from the museum’s collection. He worked as a curator at the museum from 1993 until his dismissal in July 2023.However, the thefts have made their way back to the headlines following a recent BBC TV and radio programme, Thief at the British Museum. The show investigates the theftand how they went undiscovered for so many years, only to be eventually discovered thanks to the keen eye of aantiquities collector from Denmark. Dr Ittai Gradel, a collector of ancient gemstones, had bought several items from Sultan1966 on eBay before he became suspicious back in 2016. It took a few more years of carefully observing the account’s activity to confirm his suspicions and notify the museum. The user Sultan1966 had told Gradel that his real name was Paul Higgins, a rather coincidentally similar name to Peter Higgs. 

Since learning that so many of its items had been sold online, the museum has been trying to recover them, and thats where the FBI comes in. Many of the sold items have ended up in the USA, so the investigation calls for cross-border collaboration between the Metropolitan Police and the FBI, the latter of which has already helped return over 250 items to the museum. Meanwhile, the museum has launched a lawsuit against Higgs as part of its efforts to retrieve all the missing pieces.

A potential legal difficulty for the museum will be proving that the items were in its possession in the first place, given that the majority of those sold online were uncatalogued. This means that there’s little official evidence that the museum ever had them. Higgs is accused of stealing mostly uncatalogued items. One slip up sawSultan1966 post and then quickly take down a catalogued item, which would have been visible to the public through the British Museum’s online catalogue. It was this which alerted Gradel to the possibility that his purchases were coming from the British Museum’s storerooms, as the briefly posted item matched one in the museum’s collection. 

At the time of writing, 626 items have been recovered so far while 100 more have been found but not yet returned to the museum. Approximately 870 items are still missing and another 500 have been damaged.