(Image: via Getty Images)

Following the theft of up to 1,500 objects in recent years, an independent review mandates that the British Museum maintain a comprehensive register of all items in its collections. The museum, responsible for about 8 million historical artifacts on behalf of the nation, initiated the review after disclosing thefts, damages, and missing items earlier this year. The incidents tarnished the museum's international reputation, leading to accusations of serious security failures and inadequate documentation of stored artifacts. In addition to publishing the review's recommendations, the museum provided further details on the thefts and damages.

The independent review, led by Sir Nigel Boardman, Lucy D’Orsi (Chief Constable of the British Transport Police), and Ian Karet (Deputy High Court Judge), revealed that the thefts at the British Museum occurred over a considerable period, affecting an estimated total of 2,000 items. The unregistered gems and jewelry in the Greece and Rome department were specifically targeted. A police investigation is ongoing, leading to the dismissal of a long-term senior staff member at the central London museum. The museum unanimously accepted the recommendations of the review.

(After the Vatican and the Louvre, British Museum is the
third most visited museum worldwide.)

The initial two recommendations from the review suggested that the British Museum should establish a policy defining its collection and identify and fully register unregistered or inadequately registered objects. The museum stated that ongoing efforts were addressing these recommendations, with plans to complete the documentation and digitization of its entire collection within five years. Additionally, the review included recommendations on risk management, auditing, governance, and security.

George Osborne, the chair of trustees, stated that the British Museum was already "putting our own house in order." He expressed regret over the museum being a victim of thefts over an extended period and apologized for the lapse. While the full report cannot be published immediately due to the ongoing police investigation, Osborne mentioned that the museum has accepted the recommendations in full. Efforts to recover hundreds of stolen items have commenced, and the museum aims to emerge from this period as a stronger, more open, and confident institution ready for the future.

Hartwig Fischer, the director of the British Museum since 2016, resigned in August amidst international embarrassment regarding the theft of artefacts and the museum's response. He acknowledged responsibility for the museum's failure to adequately address warnings about the suspected thefts of thousands of objects in 2021.

On Tuesday, the museum revealed that approximately three-quarters of the 2,000 items under scrutiny had either been stolen or were missing. Another 350 items had parts removed, such as gold mounts for gems, likely sold for scrap. Tool marks damaged about 140 items.

Of the 1,500 missing or stolen items, 351 were returned to the museum, and over 300 more were identified. The museum believes the thefts occurred over a considerable period, with unregistered items, particularly gems and jewelry in the Greece and Rome department, being a key target.

The museum acknowledged suspicions of theft in 2021 raised by Dr. Ittai Gradel, which were initially dismissed in its investigation.

"In December, audit-related concerns were brought to senior management and the British Museum's chair. The chair promptly involved the police, who initiated an investigation. At their request, no public statements were made at that time.

In August 2023, with the Metropolitan Police Service's approval, the British Museum disclosed the theft discovery. Simultaneously, the museum revealed the dismissal of a staff member and initiated a review to assess the situation and offer recommendations for future security measures."

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