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‘Frustrated’ British Museum boss says dealer did not mention more missing items

The British Museum’s director said it is “frustrating” the person who raised concerns about missing items at the institution did not say they had more artefacts (Benedict Johnson/The British Museum/PA) (PA Media)
The British Museum’s director said it is “frustrating” the person who raised concerns about missing items at the institution did not say they had more artefacts (Benedict Johnson/The British Museum/PA) (PA Media)

The British Museum’s director on Wednesday spoke of his “frustration” after claiming the person who raised concerns about missing items at the institution did not say he had more artefacts.

Emails leaked to BBC News claim the London institution was alerted by an antiquities dealer to the thefts in 2021 and ignored the report.

In a statement to the PA news agency, Hartwig Fischer said: “When allegations were brought to us in 2021 we took them incredibly seriously, and immediately set up an investigation.

“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.”

The British Museum said last week items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged” and police are investigating.

Ittai Gradel, an author, academic and antiquities dealer who alerted the museum, called for Mr Fischer and deputy director Jonathan Williams to be sacked “for the sake of this great institution” as he alleged the museum did not carry out basic checks.

Mr Gradel told The Telegraph a thorough investigation only began two years after his initial report when he contacted former chancellor, George Osborne, who is the museum’s chairman, in January this year.

Since 2014, he has bought about 70 items from the same seller, with prices ranging from £15 to a few hundred pounds, he said.

Mr Gradel said he has returned some of the missing items, which include a ring from the reign of Cleopatra, bought for £150, to the police and museum.

Police have details of those who bought the other items from him, he said.

Mr Gradel also believes another 150 items, which he has not found on the museum’s online catalogue, from a separate seller could belong to the institution.

Legal action is being taken by the museum against an unnamed member of staff, who has been sacked.

The Telegraph also alleges that the unnamed staff member was promoted to oversee the Parthenon Sculptures, which once adorned the Parthenon atop the Acropolis in Athens, following Mr Gradel raising concerns.