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Ex-curator steals over 1,800 British Museum artifacts to resell on eBay

Wellesley College Library | Getarchive

A former British Museum curator was fired after allegedly stealing over 1,800 items from the museum. An anonymous antiques expert warned the now resigned museum director Hartwig Fischer back in 2020 about the thefts. Fischer accepted responsibility for not heeding the warnings and failing to respond accordingly.

The expert stated to The Daily Telegraph back in August that he had been suspicious of certain gems and glass items that he spotted for sale on the e-commerce sites. He recognized pieces of the British Museum’s Greco-Roman artifacts from 2016, the exact department former curator Peter Higgs had worked in.

According to the court orders, Higgs, who was a museum curator for over three decades, was granted four weeks to return any items that may be in his possession. The museum’s lawyer, Daniel Burgess, said that Higgs had been selling the items for as low as $51 on eBay under false names and going as far as to manipulate the museum’s records to remain undiscovered.

Many of the missing items were taken from the museum’s unregistered collections that were held in storage, and they have identified at least 83 internal records that appear to be altered.

In August, his home was searched by police where they discovered coins and medals that matched some of the missing artifact descriptions. Higgs has stated that the found artifacts in his home were merely family heirlooms passed down to him by a deceased relative.

The judge of the high court, Justice Williams, granted the request that eBay and PayPal release Higgs’ records to verify if he had sold the artifacts.

Various countries have been requesting their items be returned to their original place of origin. For years the museum said the objects legally belonged to the institution and that it would be safer with them under the British Museum Act of 1963.

Higgs has denied all allegations and intends to dispute the charges. However, he did not show up for the hearing on March 26, citing “suffering severe mental strain.”

The British Museum appointed a new director, Nicholas Cullinan, who said he hopes to bring the museum into a new chapter.

“One of the greatest museums in the world, it is an honor to become the next director of the British Museum,” Cullinan said.

“I look forward to joining its wonderful and dedicated staff and to work with its hugely impressive board in leading it into a new chapter. This will encompass the most significant transformations, both architectural and intellectual, happening in any museum globally, to continue making the British Museum the most engaged and collaborative it can be.”

Cullinan will take on the role in the summer and deal with the renewal calls for a return to artifacts’ countries of origin, funding to refurbish the museum and of course the fallout of the artifact scandal.

The British Museum has not had a permanent director appointed since Hartwig Fischer.

To date, only 356 of the missing objects have resurfaced. It’s unclear if Higgs intends to return all of it.

The British Museum has put some of them in an exhibition entitled “Recovering Gems” to display transparency with the public.

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