While the museum has not released an official figure, photos, or descriptions of the items, the Telegraph said its sources told the UK publication that the true number of antiquities being investigated is well over 1,000—and perhaps “closer to 2,000.”
Some of the missing items, described by the museum as small pieces of “gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century,” were not digitally catalogued by the museum, making their loss more difficult to track. The British Museum said the artifacts were kept primarily for academic and research purposes, and that none had been recently on display.
The Telegraph said the extent of the loss will “intensify calls for Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum director, to resign immediately,” rather than next year, as previously announced. The museum issued its press release about the missing, stolen, and damaged items on August 16, only a few weeks after director Fischer announced he would be leaving his position.
The Telegraph also reported that museum deputy director Jonathan Williams “personally warned about the thefts in February 2021” but his position “is now untenable.”
Roman art expert Reverend Martin Henig told the Telegraph, “This is the worst case that I’ve come across like this because it involves not just selling the odd object, but also destruction. This is totally unforgivable.”
While the British Museum did not disclose which staffer was fired due to the discovery of the missing, stolen, and damaged items, the Greek antiquities curator Peter Higgs was identified by the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph.
Higgs is suspected to have taken uncategorized items and selling them on the e-commerce website eBay. One item worth $64,000 was offered for online auction for as little as $51 and listings for artifacts from the museum’s collection appeared online as early as 2016, according to a report in the Telegraph.
While no arrests have been made yet in the investigation over the missing items, the British Museum’s press statement said it would be taking legal action against the former staff member and that the Metropolitan Police’s Economic Crime Command is also looking into what happened.
The museum’s statement also announced an independent review into its security protocols, which were already the subject of a scathing Sunday Times investigation in 2002.
A spokesperson for the British Museum told ARTnews: “We cannot and won’t comment on the thefts while a police investigation is ongoing.”