British Museum Recovers More Missing Artifacts

Since the alleged theft of Greek and Roman antiquities by a curator, the British Museum has tracked down hundreds of stolen objects.

May 20, 2024By Emily Snow, MA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial Studies
The Great Court of the British Museum in London. Source: Wikipedia.


The British Museum has located 268 more artifacts that were reported stolen from its collection last year. The international investigation is ongoing as over 800 objects remain unaccounted for.


268 More Artifacts Return to the British Museum

British Museum staff inspect recovered gems. Source: BBC News.


News of the British Museum thefts broke in August 2023 when senior curator Peter Higgs was fired after 2,000 antiquities were discovered stolen or damaged. The thefts allegedly occurred over the course of three decades. Several objects have since been sold for a fraction of their worth on eBay. The most recent return of 268 missing objects from various sources brings the total recovered objects to 626 thus far. The British Museum said it is currently chasing “new leads” for an additional 100 missing objects. Investigators are presumably looking to Higgs’ eBay and PayPal records, access to which was legally granted by the High Court in March.


George Osborne, chairman of the British Museum trustees, said in a statement on Friday, “Few expected to see this day, and even I had my doubts. When we announced the devastating news that objects had been stolen from our collection, people understandably assumed that was it—we were unlikely to ever see more than a handful of them again. That’s usually the history with thefts like this. But the team at the British Museum refused to give up. Through clever detective work and a network of well-wishers, we’ve achieved a remarkable result: more than 600 of the objects are back with us, and a further 100 have been identified–in total almost half the stolen items that we could recover. It’s a great result but we’re not resting here—the hunt goes on for the remaining missing objects.”


Greek and Roman Antiquities Among the Missing Objects

Ancient glass intaglio with Jupiter as an eagle abducting Ganymede, late 1st century B.C.E.–1st century A.D.E. Source: British Museum.


Approximately 2,000 items were targeted in the British Museum thefts. All the objects were taken from basement storerooms in the department of Greece and Rome, and most belonged to the Townley Collection, which was acquired by the British Museum in the early 19th century. Many of the stolen objects are Greek and Roman gems, including cameos, intaglios, and jewelry. Most are from the Classical period, but some date back to the late Bronze Age.

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1,500 artifacts disappeared entirely from the museum storerooms. Another 500 suffered damage or had elements removed. Before the most recent recovery of 268 objects, 351 were recovered from Denmark with the help of collector Ittai Gradel, who unknowingly purchased hundreds of the stolen objects, and the Thorvaldsens Museum in Copenhagen. A further six objects have been recovered from unidentified sources. According to a museum spokesperson, while most of the objects have been recovered in Europe, the search is global.


Museum Plans to Digitize Collection After Thefts

Recovered artifacts from the museum’s Townley Collection. Source: British Museum.


Peter Higgs, a former senior curator in the British Museum’s Greek and Rome department, has denied all allegations against him since being fired and investigated. Former museum director Hartwig Fischer also stepped down earlier this year as a result of the thefts, as did deputy director Jonathan Williams. Additionally, an independent review yielded dozens of recommendations for improved security, governance, and record-keeping at the British Museum. Ambitious plans are now in the works to digitize the museum’s entire collection, a process estimated to cost over $12 million and last five years.


Currently, the British Museum is displaying a small selection of the recovered artifacts in an exhibition called Rediscovering Gems: Small Wonders, Big Impressions, which is on view through June 6.

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By Emily SnowMA History of Art, BA Art History & Curatorial StudiesEmily Snow is a contributing writer and art historian based in Amsterdam. She earned an MA in art history from the Courtauld Institute of Art and loves knitting, her calico cat, and everything Victorian.