Close observers of the antiquities market tend to be a cynical bunch, having witnessed any number of scams, dubious practices and illicit trading. Yet there was a collective expression of shock among them last week when news emerged of the unexplained absence of a reported around 2,000 items from the British Museum’s priceless collection of ancient and historical artefacts, leading to the resignation of director Hartwig Fischer.

“The volume of missing objects is huge,” says Christos Tsirogiannis, a forensic archaeologist who works with Trafficking Culture, which researches global traffic in looted cultural objects. “No experts were expecting this to happen in one of the world’s biggest museums.”

Christopher Marinello agrees. The CEO of Art Recovery International, which specialises in recovering stolen art, he says: “Our organisation gets reports of theft every single day from various museums, cultural institutions, churches around the world. What surprised us was the fact that it was the British Museum, one of the most important museums in the world and a benchmark in security.”

That benchmark has fallen several notches after reports of precious artefacts going on sale on eBay, where one Roman object, it is said, valued at up to £50,000 was offered for just £40. Last week the museum announced that Peter Higgs, a senior curator who worked at the institution for 30 years, had been sacked earlier this year after items were found to be missing.

The museum has announced an inquiry, more than two years after officials were first informed of illicit sales from its collection, and police have also launched an investigation. On Friday museum director Hartwig Fischer announced he was stepping down following the suspected thefts.

A Benin bronze sculpture of a warrior with a helmet and a long lined covering from the neck to the lipsBut already serious damage has been done to the museum’s reputation, giving fresh momentum to arguments for the return of objects like the Parthenon marbles (also known as the Elgin marbles), Benin bronzes and Ethiopian tabots to their original homes.

The link between questions of security and cultural ownership has been made embarrassingly conspicuous by the revelation that Higgs had been in charge of the Parthenon marbles in his former role as the keeper of the Greek collections. Higgs denies any wrongdoing.

As Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, put it: “We want to tell the British Museum that they cannot any more say that Greek culture heritage is more protected in the British Museum.”

That particular debate is likely only to get louder as more details become public, but meanwhile what will become of the missing objects, and is there any chance of obtaining their return?

“It will take decades,” says Marinello, outlining the legal and forensic complexities of tracing items, many of which appear not to have been properly, or at least publicly, catalogued.

Marinello, an American lawyer who works out of a London office, says he is responsible for recovering some £475m worth of stolen art over the years, working on behalf of museums, collectors, dealers, artists, governments, cultural and religious institutions and insurance companies from Bolivia to Cambodia, Sweden to Iraq.

That recovery is greatly helped by solid evidence of provenance and speed of reaction, both of which appear lacking in this case. Each item that is sought has to be uniquely indentifiable for proof that it is the one in question. If there is a delay in searching for stolen items, there is the possibility that they may change hands several times in a number of different jurisdictions.

If the parties in each transaction claim that they acted in the belief that it was a legal trade, then the reclaimer’s job grows significantly more difficult.

“In that circumstance,” says Marinello, “it’s quite possible that they have acquired title or at least a title claim to the objects under their laws.”

But if a dealer bought an object from someone working for the British Museum, would they not be obliged to check its provenance?

“It’s a huge red flag,” agrees Tsirogiannis, “but on the other hand, how many dealers of antiquities out there are not dealing with unprovenanced objects? I don’t know anyone.”

There is a lot of myth-making around the illicit trade in antiquities, which is often billed as the world’s third-largest illegal trading activity after narcotics and arms. However, as an academic paper published in the journal Antiquity earlier this year argues, there is little statistical evidence to back up that claim, not least because in such a murky market it’s very difficult to establish hard facts.

But even if the trade is only worth hundreds of millions of dollars, rather than the multi-billions frequently cited, that’s still an awful lot of trade in which it pays not to be too curious about how objects came to be in possession of the seller.

Part of the Parthenon marbles – a sculpture of headless, armless figures draped in Grecian togas

After all, the only reason the story about the British Museum has come to light is because a Danish antiques dealer, Ittai Gradel, says he became suspicious about a dealer with whom he continued trading for several years.

According to Gradel, he alerted George Osborne, the museum’s chairman, after being “fobbed off” by its managers for two years. Apparently he first had doubts about one seller back in 2016, when he recognised an item he’d seen many years before at the British Museum. When he asked the seller, whom he’d been dealing with since 2014, where he came by his objects, he was told that the man’s grandfather had owned a junk shop in York between the wars.

That’s the kind of cover story that allows both parties involved to continue with business without having to explore any more awkward questions or pay an expert to establish provenance, even though it is a dealer’s legal responsibility to do just that.

It took Gradel a further four years before he says he realised that he had been inadvertently handling the seller’s stolen goods. And that’s when, he says, the British Museum started dragging its feet.

To illustrate the importance of acting swiftly, Marinello cites the case of Anders Burius, a historian who was director of the National Library of Sweden’s manuscript department.

“He was selling objects for years. He stole from Skokloster Castle and a whole bunch of Swedish small museums. They don’t know how much he stole. He was operating under the radar,” he says.

Eventually when he was confronted he confessed to the theft and sale of 56 valuable books (Marinello, who was involved in the case, believes there were many more).

In December 2004, before the authorities had really got to the bottom of what had occurred, Burius killed himself by slitting his wrists and cutting the gas line in his apartment, which resulted in an explosion injuring around a dozen people.

More than a decade later, millions of pounds’ worth of books that Burius had sold were returned by the US Attorney’s Office to the National Library of Sweden.

“I’m still finding things for Swedish museums, and – it’s been almost 20 years,” says Marinello. “So the quicker the British Museum publishes a detailed list of the items, the better chance there is of getting them back.”

Marinello says he would be happy to help the British Museum track down and reclaim the missing objects, and what’s more he would not charge a fee for his work.

“Half my business is pro bono,” he says. “I mean, what am I going to do, charge the British Museum? They don’t have enough money to pay their own people, and apparently not enough to beef up their security.”

Tsirogiannis would also volunteer his services, although he’s not waiting by the phone.

“I’m always available to help anyone who is a victim of theft, including the British Museum,” he says.

However he is scathing about the museum’s lax system of cataloguing. The museum is said to possess some 8m objects, the majority of them in storage. Despite that enormous number, Tsirogiannis says there is no excuse in the digital age, with smartphone cameras and scanners making light work of recording items, for any gaps in the museum’s records.

The primary objective of any museum, he says, should be to “record its objects” immediately on taking possession of them. “It’s the foremost priority and most basic responsibility,” he says.

While he sees the apparent failure to do this as a reputational disaster for the museum, he also believes the current crisis provides an opportunity for the museum to improve its international image in another regard.

“You don’t have to be an expert to understand that such objects [as the Parthenon marbles] belong to the countries of origin. These objects were taken without these nations being asked,” he says.

Historically, he says, the British Museum’s arguments about its rights of ownership have been based on the conviction that its guardianship is superior to that of the countries of origin. That argument is hard to sustain if so many antiquities have indeed gone missing.

“But I’m afraid that the British Museum won’t see this an opportunity,” Tsirogiannis continues. “Instead they will deal with it as an unfortunate isolated incident in the hope it will soon be forgotten.”

If the allegations under investigation prove to be true – and no one seems to be denying the basic facts – then this episode will, on the contrary, be long remembered around the world.

Marinello understands the international dimensions but he has some domestic advice. He notes that the museum’s own charter states a primary fiduciary responsibility to the British people, and an obligation to protect and preserve the objects in its collection. That means the situation calls for some public reassurance.

“Mr Osborne and the trustees need to come back from their summer vacations, put away their tuxedos for all the events that they go to, and have a press conference and say: ‘This is what happened. This is what we’re doing. This is what we can’t divulge, because it’s a police investigation. This is how we’re going to keep this from happening again.’ I mean, the British people are entitled to this.”

It’s not hard to detect the warm scent of Mediterranean holidays amid the chilly institutional silence that largely surrounded this story until Fischer’s resignation. It’s the August return to the lands of antiquities, the places from which so many artefacts were historically taken for “safekeeping” only to turn up for auction so many years later almost unnoticed in the darkened corners of the digital bazaar that is eBay.

Artful UK heists

The Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya.
The Duke of Wellington by Francisco de Goya. Photograph: Fine Art/Corbis/Getty Images

In 1961 Goya’s Portrait of the Duke of Wellington was stolen from the National Gallery in central London. The thief had got in through an open window in the men’s toilet. Letters were sent to newspapers claiming the artwork had been stolen as a protest against how the poor are neglected in an affluent society, and other explanations. In 1962 a copy turned up as a visual joke in the James Bond film Dr No, on display in the titular villain’s lair. In 1968 a letter was received with a luggage tag that led to a locker and the painting. A former bus driver, Kempton Bunton, was arrested but cleared of all but one charge. The story was told in The Duke, the 2020 film with Helen Mirren and Jim Broadbent.

In the early 1970s a low-level employee at Lambeth Palace stole more than 1,300 valuable books from its library. Among them was Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part 2, which might be worth around £50,000 today, and a copy of Theodor de Bry’s America, thought to be worth £150,000. Although staff were aware that many books were missing, they didn’t know the extent. It was only when a letter from the thief arrived in 2011, after his death, that the truth came out, and a libraryload of books was recovered from his loft.

The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer.
The Guitar Player by Johannes Vermeer. Photograph: The Picture Art Collection/Alamy

In 1974 thieves forced open the iron bars on a window at Kenwood House on Hampstead Heath and made off with Vermeer’s The Guitar Player. The police assumed it was stolen to gain a ransom, and one demand received was that the Price sisters, two IRA operatives imprisoned in the UK, should serve their sentences in Northern Ireland. It was never proved that the IRA was behind the theft, and the painting was found after an anonymous tip-off in the cemetery of St Bartholomew’s Church in London, wrapped in newspaper.

Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Buccleuch version, by Leonardo da Vinci.
Madonna of the Yarnwinder, Buccleuch version, by Leonardo da Vinci. Photograph: Alamy

Twenty years ago Madonna of the Yarnwinder by Leonardo, said to be worth £40m, was stolen from Drumlanrig Castle in Dumfriesshire when two axe-wielding men overpowered a tourist guide. Four years later a couple of private detectives, claiming to be brokering the reward money for a group of business people, were arrested in a sting operation and put on trial with three lawyers. All walked free, with one still trying to claim the reward.

 This article was amended on 27 August 2023. Owing to an editing error an earlier version quoted Christopher Marinello saying: “I’m still finding things for Swedish museums – it’s been almost 20 a year”. What he said was: “and it’s been almost 20 years”.

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