Roman Jewel Returned to British Museum Raises Concerns of Widespread Theft

An antiquities dealer contacted the deputy director of the British Museum, Jonathan Williams, in 2020 with evidence that a Roman jewel he had bought belonged to the institution. When he returned the artifact in May 2021, concerns were dismissed because the piece had been listed as missing since 1963. The jewel, a plasma portrait of a young man, also had a missing piece, suggesting possible theft. However, Dr. Williams speculated that it may have been damaged during the war.

It is now thought that this artifact is one of over 2,000 objects that may have been stolen from the museum over the course of more than a decade, with many of them being sold on eBay. The museum initially believed the item had been missing since 1963 and had no reason to suspect it was stolen. However, former Conservative Cabinet minister George Osborne, who is the chairman of the British Museum’s trustees, issued an apology on behalf of the institution, acknowledging their failure to address the scale of the thefts.

Osborne admitted that some missing items have been recovered, but many more could have been stolen from the museum’s vaults. He promised to address the issue and stated that measures have already been taken to recover stolen items. The director of the British Museum, Hartwig Fischer, resigned, and Jonathan Williams voluntarily stepped back from his duties due to their failure to uncover the thefts, despite previous warnings. Fischer expressed regret for the delays and acknowledged that the museum did not respond adequately to presented evidence.

A review will be conducted to investigate the museum’s actions prior to 2021, and how they missed signals that could have been identified. The estimate of 2,000 stolen or missing items is currently provisional. The museum recently dismissed a staff member, Peter Higgs, the acting keeper of Greek collections, after discovering missing jewelry and gems. Higgs denies any wrongdoing. Metropolitan Police officers are currently conducting investigations and have interviewed an unnamed man under caution.