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As the British Museum asks the public and experts to help recover stolen artefacts, Byline Times questions just how transparent the museum has been in the past to such matters of concern.
In a Freedom of Information (FOI) request in 2022, asking for information on the number of reported thefts and attempted thefts the British Museum had had over the past 10 years, the British Museum admitted only one “reported thefts of museum property relate(d) to an object from the British Museum collection.”
“This was a British Iron Age gold coin from the Epping Upland hoard,” the British Museum stated, “which was one of three coins which were stolen from Epping Forest Museum during the financial year 2011/12 whilst on loan from the British Museum.”
This apparently contradicts its claim to Byline Times in 2015 when, on being asked how many artefacts or items of historical interest were stolen “in the years 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011 and 2010”, the museum replied that no items had been stolen in any of the years, including in the year 2011/12.
The British Museum said that it had not revealed the 2011 theft of a gold coin in 2015 as it had interpreted the first request as referring to the British Museum site and not its collections.
In addition, neither Freedom of Information responses acknowledged the loss of an expensive Cartier diamond from the Museum that was noted missing in 2011. The Museum failed to record its loss in the 2015 request and, despite admitting in 2017 that they could not find the ring, further failed to list its absence in the 2022 FOI request.
The Museum insists the £750,000 item is missing, not stolen.
These responses – that seem to refuse to reveal the loss of items based on technical interpretations as opposed to following a spirit of transparency – predated the intense scrutiny the British Museum faced in the Summer of 2023 following the dismissal of a staff member in connection with approximately 2,000 treasures reported as either “missing, stolen, or damaged.”
This recent scandal, embroiling one of Britain’s largest cultural institutions, resulted in the resignation of its director – Hartwig Fischer – and raised Parliamentary concerns in relation to its security and record-keeping practices.
Despite concerns of the thefts being raised in 2021, and the FOI request denial of 2022, it was only on August 16 of this year that the British Museum finally confirmed they had had stolen anything more than the one missing gold coin in the last decade from its collection.
Former Conservative Chancellor George Osborne, who took on the role of Chair of the British Museum in June 2021, finally disclosed in an interview with the BBC on August 26 that around 2,000 objects were unaccounted for.
The museum claims it had chosen not to reveal details of the 2,000 lost objects at the request of Scotland Yard.
The 2,000 missing items date from the 15th Century BC to the 19th Century AD. Their thefts are believed to have been taken over a substantial period, predating the current year, with some surfacing on eBay and selling for well below their estimated values.
Antiques dealer Ittai Gradel, who had reported suspicions about an object for sale online, claimed that in 2021, the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, assured him that “all objects were accounted for.”
Dr Gradel has publicly said that he had “suffered horribly” as the British Museum “refused to listen” to his warnings for two years. Subsequently, Fischer resigned on August 25, admitting that the museum had not responded adequately in 2021 and apologised to Gradel.
Mr Gradel, however, speaking exclusively to Byline Times, said that Mr Jonathan Williams, the Deputy Director of the Museum, should also resign. Mr Williams has stood aside from his post pending an investigation.
Referring to Mr Williams, Mr Gradel claimed “he has directly overseen this monumental cockup, and yet he does not even have the minimum decency to accept responsibility and resign outright… How Osborne could describe him as honourable is beyond my comprehension.”
The British Museum said they would not comment on this precise matter.
Legal action is being pursued against the sacked Museum staff member, and an independent security review has been initiated by the museum.