The British Museum in London has launched a public appeal for help in finding around 2,000 stolen artifacts. The museum, facing increasing pressure over contested artifacts in its collection, asked for information that could lead to the recovery of the missing items. It announced that 60 items had already been returned and another 300 had been identified and were in the process of being retrieved. The missing artifacts, which have a net value of millions of pounds, include gold jewelry and semi-precious gemstones dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. Most of the stolen items were not on public display and were kept in the museum’s storeroom.
The British Museum has set up a website and email hotline for the public to provide any information related to the missing artifacts. It is also working with the Art Loss Register, the world’s largest database of stolen art. The museum has only shared the “type of material” stolen on its website, along with images of similar items, to prevent providing too much detail that could be used by those acting in bad faith.
The thefts have sparked a debate over the museum’s handling of artifacts and the ways in which they were acquired. Several countries, including Greece and China, have called for the return of artifacts to their countries of origin. The British Museum has faced accusations that many of its artifacts were acquired during British colonial rule.
The thefts are currently under investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police Service. The museum’s previous director, Hartwig Fischer, resigned from his role last month after it was revealed that an antique dealer had reportedly notified the museum of the thefts in 2021, but no action was taken. A senior curator, Peter Higgs, was also fired and accused of selling the stolen artifacts online, although his family denies any wrongdoing.
One of the challenges in identifying the stolen items is that the museum does not have a full catalog of its collection, which includes over 8 million artifacts. This may be why the losses went unnoticed for so long. George Osborne, chair of the British Museum and former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, said that someone with knowledge of the unregistered items had an advantage in removing them.
The thefts have reignited calls for the return of contested artifacts. Nigeria’s government has called for the return of the Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British troops in 1897. The British Museum has stated on its website that it is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions regarding the Benin Bronzes. Greece’s culture minister, Lina Mendoni, has also called for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures, arguing that the thefts demonstrate the museum’s inability to safeguard the items.
In response to the scandal, the museum has faced criticism from countries such as China and Greece. An op-ed in China’s state-run newspaper, Global Times, requested the return of over 23,000 artifacts in the museum’s possession. The British Museum stated that it has a long history of cultural collaboration in China and has not received an official request for the return of any objects from the Chinese government. The museum maintains that it obtained the Parthenon Sculptures legally and that successive Greek governments have refused to acknowledge its ownership.
The British Museum has been caught up in another scandal this week, as it was revealed that the museum had purchased an ancient Egyptian artifact from a dealer in New York who had been convicted of smuggling artifacts. The museum stated that establishing the provenance of an object is an integral part of its acquisition process and that it has been offering assistance to US authorities in New York since 2019.
The British Museum’s public appeal for the recovery of stolen artifacts demonstrates its efforts to address the issue of thefts from its collection. However, the thefts have also reignited debates over the museum’s acquisition practices and the repatriation of contested artifacts. The ongoing investigations and calls for the return of artifacts suggest that this issue will continue to be a topic of discussion and scrutiny for the museum in the coming months.
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