The Times talks about insufficient security measures at the British Museum after the scandal involving the theft of various antiquities.
Last week the British Museum announced that an employee had been sacked and would be taking legal action against him over the thefts. Police have launched an investigation and have questioned a man, however no arrests have yet been made. .
The scandal with the thefts from the British Museum is mentioned by the Times, writing that the curators and caretakers of the collection in the basements are part of a privileged group of people. These are those who have been granted access to the private rooms below where the Parthenon Sculptures are publicly displayed, as well as to other vast storerooms throughout the British Museum.
According to the Times, these people are allowed to go to the designated areas unescorted, using electronic passes or simple keys to gain access. That particular person is not screened on exit, while security officers are said to be mainly focused on guarding the collections from the public rather than employees, the report said.
A lot depends on trust
“Essentially, if you have that permission and no one else is around … a lot depends on trust. The same applies to other major museums,” said a source.
Peter Higgs, the ousted curator, who denies any wrongdoing, once recalled the eerie quiet he observed when he wandered alone in these – far from the public eye – warehouses.
“In our basements, where we have lots of statue fragments and whole shelves full of ‘body parts’… If you’re down there by yourself, it gets a little creepy,” said Higgs, who specializes in Greek and Roman sculptures.
The report states that… “each item is believed to have a number and a designated space in the warehouses, which are alarmed but not otherwise monitored, according to experts. Those who have a license are not required to inform anyone about what objects they are working with.”
The antiquities dealer who raised the alarm believes an earlier trove could have come from its collections https://t.co/TFy1GxVTcf
— The Times and The Sunday Times (@thetimes) August 28, 2023
“I would call security, tell them which room I was going into, get the key and that was all I needed to do to access a huge range of objects,” a former curator told the Independent.
“Many of the collections are kept in the same rooms as others, so if someone was dishonest they would have the cover of knowing that dozens of other curators, conservators, specialists and researchers would be in that room that same week or even day,” a fact that it would eliminate the traces of any malicious interested party.
“I was shocked and scared”
The thefts of the antiquities were revealed by an expert and art dealer Itai Grandel. Speaking to the Times, Grandel did not hide his anger and questioned that for more than a year, the museum denied his findings, claiming that his claims were “totally unfounded” and that “the collection is protected”.
“I was shocked and horrified when I started putting things in order. I could not imagine that the objects were not safe in this glorious institution. They pushed me away and that made me determined to make them listen to me.”
“After I first went to them and they refused to take me seriously, I left and developed contacts in the museum and academia, I was determined that if the museum closed the door on me again, I would be able to break it down,” he said.
Among the items that have taken flight are gold jewellery, onyx gemstones and glassware are among up to 2,000 items, some of which are more than 3,500 years old, feared to have been lost, damaged or stolen from the search rooms of the museum over two decades.
How they came to the revelations about the thefts
Grandel’s concerns first came to light through his friend Malcolm Hay, another trader, in May or June 2020.
Since 2016 he has been buying Roman glass gems and other items dating back to 1 BC. about from an eBay account, but noticed that a gemstone he had bought was listed on the British Museum website as part of its collection. Another gem from the same seller was also listed on the museum’s website, and both were part of a collection donated to the museum by 18th-century collector Charles Townley.
Note that Gradel’s suspicions were further heightened when the seller listed an item and quickly withdrew it. The piece was recorded in the museum.
In fact, Itai Grandel bought about 70 items from eBay, although he was able to prove that only three of the items were registered by the museum. However, he suspects that the rest were also there, but were not properly recorded by the museum.
He even commented on his findings to Jonathan Williams, the museum’s deputy director, in February 2021, this time naming the seller. The email was acknowledged, but four months later he had received no response. On the other hand in July Williams responded, saying: “The objects in question are all accounted for and there is no suspicion of any wrongdoing by any member of the museum staff.
From the investigation he also considered the relevant security arrangements and found that the procedures are robust and that the collection is protected.’
The disturbing news
Through a mutual friend, Grandel emailed Sir Paul Ruddock, the museum’s curator, in October 2022, calling it “disturbing news”.
Ruddock forwarded the e-mail to George Osborne, the museum’s current president, who showed it to director Hartwick Fisher, writing: “Gradel says he raised the allegations with you and Jonathan Williams, but says he was not assured they were investigated satisfactorily. “It goes without saying that these are very serious allegations. Could you provide me with a detailed response to assure me that the matter has been thoroughly investigated, with a timetable, and to let me know what the conclusions were.’
“No innocent explanation was even remotely possible for the evidence I had sent them.”
Expert in Roman antiquities, Dr Ittai Gradel tells Sky News that he was ignored when he told the museum about the theft.https://t.co/L2voSS6KLv
Sky 501, Virgin 602 and YouTube pic.twitter.com/bZOpXEOFtg
— Sky News (@SkyNews) August 25, 2023
Fisher then replied to Ruddock that “there is no evidence to support the allegations”. Grendel was devastated. In January this year he wrote to Osborne: “I love the British Museum (regardless of my feelings about the current director and deputy director and the way they removed me) and I am steadfast in pursuing what I consider my duty to the institution. (in its ideal or more Platonic sense) – and I firmly believe that I am entitled to some sort of explanation here.’
Osborne said the allegations were being “looked into”, but after months of no development, Grandel took what he described as a last resort. He sent his allegations to the police and the press. “It was the only option I had left,” he said.
That seems to have put the case in order… So after Fischer’s resignation, in which he apologized to Grandel for comments he made that were essentially attacking him, Osborne gave an interview in which he said the museum is in the process of returning the items. Among them will be a second hoard of 150 items bought by Grandel for £20,000 which he believes were also stolen.
The agreement for the Parthenon Sculptures is close
The Times report claims that Osborne is said to have been reassured that Kyriakos Mitsotakis, Greece’s prime minister, did not join Athens’ barrage of protests over the scandal. The two held talks in Greece about lending some of the Parthenon Marbles in exchange for Greek treasures coming to the UK.
There have been concerns that the Sculptures, removed from Athens by Lord Elgin in the 19th century, may be vulnerable after 2,000 objects were stolen from the London institution and some were offered for sale on eBay. However, Mitsotakis refrained from attacking the museum.
“You can read a lot from his silence,” a Museum employee told the Financial Times. “There was considerable restraint at the heart of the Greek state.” A museum expert was quoted as speculating that this was a sign that Athens might have thought a deal for the sculptures was close.
The article Underground without security untold archaeological treasures at the British Museum – How we got to the revelation of the thefts was published in Fourals.com.