The museum has yet to release details about what items are missing but it is believed 1500-2000 objects may have been stolen or damaged over a long period.
While investigations by the museum and the Metropolitan Police are aiming to establish which works have been lost, reports have emerged that various items, particularly jewellery and gemstones, have been offered on eBay.
Screenshots of a Roman onyx cameo listed on the online auction platform with a £40 starting bid (but with a real value in the five figures) were published in The Telegraph last week. It also reported that missing jewellery from the museum has been turning up on eBay since at least 2016.
Ivan Macquisten, an adviser to the Antiquities Dealers’ Association, said: “No area of the art market wants to hear that hundreds of stolen items may now be in circulation, especially if the circumstances mean that unwitting members of the public may have bought some of them via eBay.”
It has also emerged that Dr Ittai Gradel, a Danish academic and dealer specialising Roman antiquities, who also works as a consultant at Timeline Auctions, first raised the alarm to the museum back in 2021 after spotting a number of items for sale online.
He suspected that the culprit was deliberately choosing items that did not appear in the museum’s online catalogue. But, after linking at least one eBay listing with an entry in the museum’s collection, he began to suspect other items listed on eBay by the same seller were actually from the museum.
Gradel told ATG that most items offered were either misdated or not correctly described (except in a few cases), giving the impression of the seller being clueless on the objects and fitting in with his story that he had inherited them from his grandfather.
According to The Telegraph, the museum initially said that “all objects were accounted for” but it was only when a “full audit” was launched in 2022 that a larger problem was uncovered. At that point the police were alerted and disciplinary procedures against the staff member began.
The member of staff, who denies any wrongdoing, has now been dismissed and the museum said it will be taking legal action against them.
Macquisten said: “What this episode has shown – and is often the case but unacknowledged – is that it is the trade who raise the alarm and tip off the authorities because their expertise means that they are often the first to spot a problem.”
ATG contacted the British Museum for a further response but a spokesman said: “We cannot comment while a police investigation is ongoing.”
An eBay spokesperson told BBC News: “Our dedicated law enforcement liaison team is in close contact with the Metropolitan Police and is supporting the investigation into this case.
“EBay does not tolerate the sale of stolen property. If we identify that a listing on our site is stolen, we immediately remove it and work with law enforcement to support investigations and keep our site safe.”
Response to warnings
The British Museum has confirmed that the items missing include gold jewellery, gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD. It said the majority were small pieces kept in a storeroom and kept primarily for academic and research purposes and none of the pieces had recently been on public display. No complete record exists of all eight million items in the museum’s collection and numerous works, including many gems, kept in storage are believed to be uncatalogued.
In a statement issued after the news of the thefts first broke, the British Museum said: “A member of staff has been dismissed, and the museum will now be taking legal action against the individual.”
The museum’s director Hartwig Fischer, who resigned on Friday, said: “Over the last few days I have been reviewing in detail the events around the thefts from the British Museum and the investigation into them. It is evident that the British Museum did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021, and to the problem that has now fully emerged. The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director. I also misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel. I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks.
“I have offered my resignation to the Chairman of the Trustees, and will step down as soon as the Board have established an interim leadership arrangement. This will remain in place until a new director is chosen.”
Meanwhile British Museum deputy director Jonathan Williams has agreed to voluntarily step back from his normal duties until the independent review into the thefts at the museum has concluded.