British Museum Staffer Fired for Lost and Damaged Items Identified as Veteran Curator Peter Higgs

Peter John Higgs, a prominent curator of Greek antiquities who was employed at the British Museum for three decades, has been identified by the Times of London and the Daily Telegraph as the person allegedly responsible for missing, stolen and damaged items from the museum’s collection.

Higgs is suspected to have taken uncategorized items and selling them on the e-commerce website eBay. Listings for artifacts from the museum’s collection appeared online as early as 2016, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.

The museum’s press announcement on August 16 said the majority of the missing, stolen, and damaged items were small pieces of “gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century” that were were kept primarily for academic and research purposes. None of them had been recently on display.

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British Museum Fired Staffer Over Missing and Damaged Items

Higgs began working at the British Museum in 1993 after visiting it regularly as a child. Before Higgs was fired earlier this year, he was the museum’s head of department for Greece and Rome. Higgs was also the lead curator of the 2021 exhibition “Ancient Greeks: Athletes, Warriors and Heroes,” which has also toured three Australian museums and is scheduled for the Suzhou Museum in China at the end of this year.

The report from the Daily Telegraph said an unnamed antiquities expert informed the museum of the illegal activity three years ago. News of the missing, stolen and damage items was released by the museum only a few weeks after director Hartwig Fischer announced he would be leaving his position next year.

The Telegraph’s report also said that while earlier pieces sold by Higgs had not been comprehensively catalogued by the museum, other items were and could be traced back to a digital inventory, helping identify him as the alleged thief. While Higgs used a pseudonym to sell items on eBay, a portal on his Paypal account linked to his Twitter feed, where he used his real name.

Ironically, in 2013, Higgs used his expertise with a high-profile artifact after UK customs officials asked the British Museum for assistance in helping identify a statue that had been seized at Heathrow Airport. Higgs told the Guardianhe knew right away it was a 2,000-year-old marble statue of a Greek goddess. The rare funerary statue was repatriated to Libya in 2021.

No arrests have been made yet in the investigation over the missing items, but 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, prompting questions about the safety of other items in its collection, especially ones with contested provenance.

Art Recovery International, a UK-based law firm specializing in restitution and repatriation cases, posted on X, formerly known as Twitter: “Perhaps the Parthenon Marbles are not safe in the UK after all. They should be moved to a museum in Athens where they can be well cared for…”

Experts are already concerned the missing, stolen, and damaged items have been melted down, recut, or sent abroad. Art Recovery International CEO Christopher Marinello said the length of time that has passed since the discovery of the thefts at the museum severely reduced the likelihood of their recovery. Marinello told the Telegraph that “unsophisticated” criminals who steal works of art are typically focused on “quick cash” and destroy the pieces in the process.

“They will tend to melt down gold as quickly as possible, and have the gems recut,” he said, referring to the $18 million outdoor statute Reclining Figure by Henry Moore stolen from the artist’s foundation in 2005 and believed to have been “melted down for the value of the raw metal.”

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