British Museum Sues Former Curator Over Alleged Thefts

The British Museum is suing its former Senior Curator Peter Higgs over serious theft allegations.

The London museum was granted access to the terminated employee’s eBay and PayPal records today, March 26, after presenting detailed allegations pointing to years of thefts from its collections to London’s High Court. The judge will order Higgs, who worked in the museum’s Greek collections department for 30 years before he was dismissed last August, to disclose information about the artifacts he is accused of stealing. 

The museum alleges that Higgs hawked stolen collection objects to over 45 buyers over a 10-year period, claiming that the former curator used pseudonyms and even altered artifact records to obfuscate the thefts. According to the British Museum, Higgs primarily pocketed ancient gems and gold jewelry from storerooms. The works had not been recently exhibited and some did not have official records.

The museum holds around eight million objects in its collection, only around 1% of which are on display, and Board Chairman George Osborne told the BBC last summer that around 2,000 of these unexhibited artworks were missing.

Higgs, who was not present in court on Tuesday but was represented by his lawyers, reportedly intends to dispute the claims, per the BBC. The British Museum did not immediately respond to Hyperallergic’s request for comment.

According to today’s hearing, London’s Metropolitan Police conducted a raid on Higg’s home last August and found instructions on how to alter object records alongside Ancient Greek and Roman coins that the museum alleges were taken from its collection, a claim Higgs has denied.

There were two instances in 2021 in which antiquities dealers separately flagged collections objects that appeared on eBay. Denmark-based Ittai Gradel reportedly purchased gems along with 69 other items from the same seller on eBay, which he disclosed to the museum, noting his suspicion that these sales were facilitated by a staff member. The museum subsequently launched an internal investigation but found no evidence of wrongdoing.

When reports of the thefts emerged in 2023 alongside the termination of Higgs, British Museum then-Director Hartwig Fischer voluntarily resigned from his position, saying that the institution “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021,” and accepting responsibility for the losses.

The museum has since recovered some 356 stolen objects and enlisted help from the public to find the rest before announcing last October that it would be fully digitizing its collections over the next five years. 

While the museum appears to be in good spirits with its ongoing exhibition of stolen gems that were recovered, the thefts have reignited bids for the repatriation of the Parthenon Marbles and Benin Bronzes to Greece and Nigeria respectively in light of the museum’s security issues. 

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