Art Under Siege: Examining the Rising Wave of British Museum Thefts


London (Parliament Politic Magazine) – The British Museum faced pressure this week following the termination of an employee due to the reported disappearance, theft, or damage of valuable artifacts. As one of the nation’s foremost tourist attractions, the museum is dedicated to showcasing human history, art, and culture, housing a vast collection of invaluable objects.

Currently, law enforcement is conducting an investigation into the theft of various items, including gold, jewelry, and semi-precious gemstones. Here’s what we currently know about the situation, along with a retrospective glance at other significant thefts.

Thefts Over The Past Few Years 

It appears that the missing artifacts were taken prior to this year, spanning a “significant” period. Some of these items were discovered on eBay, being sold for significantly less than their estimated value.

These treasures, dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD, had not been on public display recently; they were primarily preserved for academic and research purposes. The majority of these pieces were stored in a secure room.

The British Museum’s outgoing director, Hartwig Fischer, stated this week that the institution is fully committed to recovering these objects.

“This incident is highly uncommon,” Fischer remarked. “I can confidently speak for all my colleagues when I emphasize our utmost dedication to safeguarding all items under our care.”

He went on to say, “We’ve already enhanced our security protocols and are collaborating with external experts to compile a comprehensive inventory of what has been lost, damaged, or stolen.”

The Culprit

The museum confirmed legal actions against the dismissed staff member and has initiated an independent security review. However, the terminated individual has not been identified as the presumed thief.

The Metropolitan Police of London is actively investigating the thefts, though no arrests have been made at this point.

While the identity of the former employee in question could not be verified attempts have been made to contact both the museum and the police. Neither has disclosed the person’s identity, reasons for termination, the circumstances of the artifacts’ disappearance, or their nature.

Prior Thefts at the British Museum

The British Museum has experienced previous incidents of missing items, including a Cartier ring valued at £750,000 and a 12cm marble head. During the 1970s, a series of historic coins and medals were pilfered.

In 1993, thieves gained entry through the roof and stole Roman coins and jewelry worth £250,000. In 2002, the museum revamped its security measures after a 2,500-year-old Greek statue, valued at around £25,000, was taken by a member of the public.

The marble head was removed from the Greek Archaic Gallery, which had been accessible to the public without a continuous security presence. In 2004, a member of the public took 15 Chinese artifacts considered “historically important.” These items included jewels, ornate hairpins, and fingernail guards. In 2017, it came to light that a valuable Cartier diamond had been missing since 2011.

Museum Thefts So Far 

Other notable museum thefts include:

  • The 1911 theft of the Mona Lisa from the Louvre by Vincenzo Peruggia, a handyman.
  • The 2004 theft of Edvard Munch’s “The Scream” from the Munch Museum, which was recovered two years later.
  • In 1990, the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston experienced a robbery where 13 artworks, collectively worth $500 million (£392 million), were stolen. The case remains unresolved.
  • A skilled thief nicknamed “Spider-Man” stole five renowned artworks from a Parisian museum in 2010.
  • In 1985, Impressionist masterpieces were taken from a Paris museum in the presence of the public.
  • During the same year, 124 cherished artifacts were taken from a Mexican archaeological museum by amateurs.
  • The widespread looting of Europe by the Nazis during World War II and the looting of Ukraine by Russia during the 2022 invasion are also significant instances of cultural theft.

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Disputed Artifacts

In recent times, the British Museum has faced growing pressure to repatriate objects from its assortment back to their countries of initial origin. The requests made by Greece to reclaim the Parthenon Sculptures, frequently referred to as the Elgin Marbles, stand out as the most prominent illustration in this ongoing discourse.

These sculptures were taken from Greece by the diplomat and military officer Lord Elgin during the 19th Century, and subsequently acquired by the British government before being housed within the British Museum. In March, the Vatican took the step of returning three fragments from the Parthenon temple in Athens, fragments it had held onto for centuries.

Beth Malcolm

Beth Malcolm is Scottish based Journalist at Heriot-Watt University studying French and British Sign Language. She is originally from the north west of England but is living in Edinburgh to complete her studies.