British Museum Fires Worker over ‘Missing, Stolen and Damaged’ Treasures

REUTERS/Toby Melville/File Photo
A sign for the British Museum which houses the Parthenon sculptures is seen in London, Britain, January 25, 2023.

The British Museum dismissed an employee after it found that gold jewelry, gems and glass dating back as far as the 15th century BC were missing from a storeroom. In a news release, the museum said it opened an independent review of security and would take legal action against the person, whom they accused of stealing and damaging the items.

“The British Museum has been the victim of theft,” former trustee Nigel Boardman, who is helping lead the independent review of security, said in a statement. “We are absolutely determined to use our review in order to get to the bottom of what happened.”

The museum launched a recovery program to ensure the items are returned, which Boardman described as a “painstaking job, involving internal and external experts” but an “absolute priority – however long it takes.”

The items were all “small pieces kept in a storeroom” of one the museum collections, none of which had recently been on public display, the statement said. The artifacts included gold jewelry and gems of semiprecious stones and glass from between the 15th century BC and 19th century AD, kept primarily for academic and research purposes.

“This is a highly unusual incident,” museum director Hartwig Fischer said in a statement. “But we have now brought an end to this – and we are determined to put things right.”

British Museum Chair George Osborne said in a statement that the trustees learned of the theft earlier this year and that they used “all the disciplinary powers” available on the person believed to be responsible. “It’s a sad day for all who love our British Museum,” he added.

Museum spokesman Connor Watson declined to provide additional details about the identity or role of the alleged thief.

The Metropolitan Police’s Economic Crime Command is also investigating. “We are bound by the police investigation and would not want to prejudice any potential action,” Watson told The Washington Post by email.

Some on social media were quick to identify what they called the irony of the museum taking a stand over the apparent theft of ancient treasures, pointing out that many of the objects in the museum’s collection were looted from other countries during the British imperial era.

The museum acknowledges some of these “contested objects” on its website, including the Benin Bronzes that were plundered by British colonial soldiers in 1897, and the marble Parthenon Sculptures, dating to between 447 BC and 432 BC, that were taken from the Acropolis in Athens.

Pressure has grown for the museum to return the objects, among others, to their home countries.

“‘We will throw our efforts into recovering the stolen goods that we previously stole’ may not be the flex that the national museum spin-doctors think it is,” Dan Hicks, an Oxford professor of contemporary archaeology, wrote on the social media platform, X, previously known as Twitter.