The British Museum is believed to have lost 2,000 valuable artifacts, although some of them have already started to be recovered, according to chairman George Osborne.
The former chancellor acknowledged that the museum’s reputation had suffered but insisted that “we are going to clean up the mess.”
The quantity of items stolen from the museum, according to a renowned expert in stolen antiques, is “mind-blowing.”
A museum employee who is suspected of being involved has been fired.
Additionally, it was disclosed on Friday that Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s director, will resign as soon as he acknowledges that the 2021 probe was handled improperly.
One of the most esteemed cultural institutions in the UK, the museum, has been under fire since it was revealed earlier this month that a number of priceless artifacts had been reported “missing, stolen, or damaged.”
The objects in question were mostly retained for scholarly and research purposes, and they ranged in date from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.
In an interview with BBC Radio 4’s Today program, Mr. Osborne, who was appointed chair in June 2021, said: “We believe we have been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and frankly more could have been done to prevent them.”
When questioned about the whereabouts of the missing goods, he responded, “Some members of the antiquarian community are actively cooperating with us,” adding that the recoveries made thus far were “a silver lining to a dark cloud.”
Although he recognized that “others may not,” he expressed confidence that “honest people” would return stuff that had been taken.
The British Museum was established in 1753 and has collected a collection of some eight million objects, albeit as of 2019, only 80,000 of them were on public display, with the remainder being kept in storage.
Because some of the goods weren’t “properly catalogued and registered,” according to Mr. Osborne, “someone with knowledge of what is not registered has a big advantage in removing” them.
According to Mr. Osborne, the museum is in close contact with the police, and a “forensic job” is being conducted to determine exactly what is gone. He claimed that the museum’s security needs to be increased.
The British Museum’s reputation has undoubtedly suffered as a result, Mr. Osborne continued, and for that reason I’m apologizing on its behalf.
Detectives from the Metropolitan Police have spoken with a guy about the missing items, but no arrests have been made.
After it was revealed that worries about potential thefts were initially raised two years ago, senior leaders at the museum hurried to explain how they handled the discovery of missing pieces.
After theft concerns were initially reported in February 2021, Mr. Osborne claimed that “more could have been done.”
He said that he did not think there was a “cover-up” at the top of the museum but added that it was “possible” that senior staff members’ “groupthink” prevented them from “believing that there was an insider” stealing artifacts.
The thefts were the worst in modern history, according to Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist who leads a Unesco group devoted to combating illegal antiquities trafficking.
“It is by far the biggest theft I know about from a museum, especially for one of this calibre,” he told BBC News.
It’s a significant amount for any museum, but the British Museum’s situation is particularly bad.
Disaster on the horizon
In order to aid professionals in the hunt, Dr. Tsirogiannis urged the museum to publish a list of what is missing right away.
“I don’t have any evidence to start checking,” he declared. They are restricting the ability of specialists who should be assisting by failing to produce a list of what is missing. Although I would love to, I am unable to.
Mr. Osborne told the BBC that the museum was collaborating closely with both the Art Loss Register, a database of stolen objects, and the police, who were “the only people” able to post a list of stolen artifacts on Interpol.
A curator from Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum named Professor Dan Hicks criticized the British Museum’s record-keeping practices in the Guardian, calling them “a disaster waiting to happen.”
Mr. Osborne acknowledged that not all of the items owned by the British Museum have been formally recorded.
Despite the fact that it “was ahead of many of the big museums in doing this work,” he emphasized that it was “not unique” for a huge institution to not properly categorize its whole collection.
Recording things is the “primary responsibility of a museum,” according to Dr. Tsirogiannis. According to him, the British Museum “deliberately chose to invest money into glossy catalogues and events without recording their objects.”
Director since 2016, Mr. Fischer announced on Friday that he would step down as soon as a temporary replacement had been chosen.
Previously, the museum director was scheduled to retire in 2024.
The antiquities merchant who raised the issue for the first time in 2021 allegedly concealed information regarding the missing artifacts, according to his apology for “misjudged” remarks.
Jonathan Williams, the deputy director who oversaw the 2021 probe, will take a leave of absence from his regular responsibilities until the conclusion of an impartial investigation that the museum has commissioned.
The controversy has raised concerns about the British Museum’s broader function as a facility housing global artifacts.