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British Museum director resigns after more than 1,500 objects go missing: NPR

NPR’s Scott Simon chats with The Art Newspaper’s Martin Bailey about the British Museum thefts that led to the director’s resignation.


The director of the British Museum is absent. Hartwig Fischer resigned in response to a stolen property scandal. A report estimates that more than 1,500 objects are missing. Today, Mr Fischer claims the museum, and I quote, ‘did not respond as fully as it should have’ after discovering the thefts two years ago. Martin Bailey from The Art Newspaper followed the story and joined us. Mr. Bailey, thank you very much for being with us.

MARTIN BAILEY: It’s a pleasure.

SIMON: Do we know what is missing, more or less?

BAILEY: We don’t, and that’s part of the problem. The British Museum statement simply states that it is gold jewelery and semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. Now other reports have suggested, as you say, that over 1,500 items may be missing, and they are worth several million pounds. But the fact is that outside the museum, we don’t know what is lost. And I suspect that even within the museum, it’s not clear what’s gone missing or what’s been stolen.

SIMON: Some of these items have been put up for sale online.

Bailey: Exactly. It started when some items appeared on eBay a few years ago. We just don’t know what happened to them. If it’s gold, you know, it could have been melted down. And these are objects that are really important.

SIMON: There’s an employee named Peter Higgs, who was fired. Do we know if he’s online?

BAILEY: Well, the suggestion… there’s very strong evidence that it does. It was he who was fired by the museum for this reason. And his son confirmed his dismissal and declared himself innocent. What is strange and unusual about this case is that Higgs was actually a very senior figure within the museum. He worked at the British Museum for over 30 years in the Greek and Roman department, and he was actually promoted to caretaker last year. So the fact that he was so senior, I think, meant people could hardly believe he would have done something like that. It is quite unusual for a museum curator whose responsibility it is to look after the collection to steal objects.

SIMON: Who sold them on eBay?

BAILEY: Well, we think they’re from him.

SIMON: But he was operating under a pseudonym, I guess.

Bailey: Yeah. Yes.

SIMON: The British Museum, like many major European museums, has faced calls to return certain objects to the countries from which they came. At the British Museum, in particular, the Greek government wanted the Parthenon sculptures back. The heads of the British Museum and many museums in Europe say, “Listen, they have a good home here. People can see them, they are well taken care of and they won’t go away. What does this argument look like now?

BAILEY: I don’t think much has changed. In the case of the British Museum, there is in fact a law which prohibits the museum from disposing of its inheritance, except in two circumstances. The first is that they are allowed to hand over Nazi loot, and they are allowed to hand over human remains. But other than that, they are not able to return the items. Thus, to return the marbles to Greece, Parliament would have to pass a special law, which it could do. The question is what kind of impact Fischer’s resignation and the robbery news will have on the Parthenon dispute. There is no doubt that the Greek Minister of Culture and the Greek authorities will use this argument to demand the return of the marbles. I think in practice it won’t make much difference, but it will make the verbal argument worse, if you will.

SIMON: To make something valuable in a free market like eBay, don’t you have to produce some sort of provenance?

BAILEY: Well, that’s another disappointing thing. On eBay, these objects will have been sold for a pittance. Obviously, if anyone knew they were illegally from the British Museum, they couldn’t sell them on the open market. You couldn’t go to Christie’s, Sotheby’s or a major retailer and try to sell them. So if you sell them on eBay, you’ll be selling them for a tiny proportion of their value. It is very regrettable. And the people who buy them will not necessarily realize the importance of the object they have just bought.

SIMON: So they could turn them into cufflinks or something.

BAILEY: Indeed, unfortunately.

SIMON: Martin Bailey from The Art Newspaper in London, thank you very much for being with us.

Bailey: Thank you.

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