Pirate, Curate, And Violate: Is the British Museum run by incompetents or thieves?

For decades, people have rightfully called for European countries to return stolen artefacts and antiquities to the countries they were taken from (see the second quoted text below).  The growing scandal at the British Museum may finally be the wake up call to make this happen.

It’s an absolute disgrace.  Between 1500 and 2000 items have been stolen, “misplaced”, or otherwise unaccounted for over decades.  Some of them that WERE in the BM seen for sale on ebay, or in the hands of “private collectors”.

‘Nobody was expecting it’: British Museum warned reputation seriously damaged and treasures will take decades to recover

Experts say loss of 1,500 items reveals lax cataloguing and boosts case for returning objects to countries of origin
Aug 26 2023

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.

From Princeton University’s African American Studies Program, 2021:

Returning artifacts to Benin, West Africa helps a dehumanized society heal: Chika Okeke-Agulu

After France returned 26 cultural artifacts to the West African nation of Benin this week, one art historian says institutions still holding on to colonial loot need to “get the memo” and return cultural treasures to their homelands.

“They cannot play the ostrich, they have to face up [to] the reality and be on the right side of history,” said Chika Okeke-Agulu, a Nigerian art historian and African art professor at Princeton University.

The 26 items, including statues and a royal throne, were stolen by French forces in 1892, from the Kingdom of Dahomey in what is now the south of present-day Benin. The country’s president Patrice Talon met with French President Emmanuel Macron in Paris Tuesday to mark the repatriation.

Experts estimate that thousands of African artworks and artifacts are still resting in museums and vaults far from their homelands — and there are growing calls for them to be returned. Germany has agreed to return hundreds of plaques and sculptures, known as the Benin bronzes, to Nigeria. 


  1. moarscienceplz says

    “Is the British Museum run by incompetents or thieves?”
    “Or”? 😂
    If His Majesty King Charles III really wanted to make the case that the throne still matters in the 21st century, and that his royal butt should be in said throne, this would be a great opportunity for him to lead his subjects to an understanding that all the loot stolen during the days of empire MUST be returned ASAP with heartfelt apologies. And that includes the Royal Jewels. He wouldn’t be interfering with the actual government (they, of course would have to pass laws to enable the actual repatriations. Charles would simply be trying to steer the hearts and minds of his people to demand that Parliament do the proper thing), but he would solidly establish himself and his office as still holding an actual leadership role and not just as some kind of Disneyesque automaton.

  2. ockhamsshavingbrush says

    Germany has agreed to return hundreds of plaques and sculptures, known as the Benin bronzes, to Nigeria.

    And the Berlin collections are still stacked up to wazoo with stolen artifacts. They even built a new museum – a re-creation of the old city dwellings of the Prussian kings – to house the exibits that were stored in warehouses up until recently. And the museums were basically kicking and screaming to not have to return the Benin bronzes. I think because they stole the artifacts fair and square and why would they give back said artifacts to the countries of origin? The gist was: “Can THOSE people even take proper care of the invaluable pieces of art?” To which I say: None of your business. It’s their’s and they can do with the pieces whatever they damn well please!

    And it does not stop there. The Museum of Natural History would lose some of their centerpices in the main entrance hall which were “excavated” – read stolen – from the Tendaguru region in what is today Tanzania.

  3. says

    “That thing that we stole, which you stole, we want it back!”

    James Acaster did a pretty funny comedy bit about imperialism and the british museum. Short form: “you can’t have it back, we’re not done looking at it, yet.”

  4. drken says

    Jon Oliver did a segment about the British Museum and their vast collection of looted objects from abroad. The museum is understandably worried that sending things back will set a bad precedent. Unfortunately for them, the British Museum exists for the purpose of displaying the stolen treasures of places conquered by the empire. Without the plunder, there’s nothing else left but a gift shop and a cafeteria. What used to be a symbol of glory has not aged well and the British Museum may have outlived its usefulness. Good luck getting the British gov’t to agree, but the only thing for them to do now is start packing things up and send out resumes.