Hundreds of objects in British Museum defaced, with parts probably sold for scrap, review finds

Hundreds of items (or pieces thereof) missing from the British Museum may never be recovered, a review into the scandal has revealed.

Hundreds of items (or pieces thereof) missing from the British Museum may never be recovered, a review into the scandal has revealed.Mike Kemp/In Pictures/Getty ImagesLondonCNN — 

Hundreds of items in the British Museum have been defaced, with valuable parts probably sold for scrap, an investigation has revealed.

The London museum, whose treasures include the Rosetta Stone, revealed back in August that a member of staff had been dismissed after items including jewelry and gems dating from the 15th century BCE to the 19th century CE had been taken from a storeroom.

Now, an independent review into the items’ disappearance has revealed that a significant proportion may never be recovered, as parts of them could have been sold for scrap.

The museum on Tuesday published an official announcement of the review’s findings, in which it set out the broad timeline of the crisis, which has proved deeply embarrassing for the institution.

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It estimates that about 2,000 items are affected — and that about three-quarters of those are either missing or stolen.

A key target for the apparent thefts, it said, appears to have been “unregistered” gems and jewelry from its Greece and Rome department.

In addition to the missing items, about 140 others have been damaged with tool marks, while some 350 have had parts (such as gold mounts for gems) removed, the museum believes.

“We believe the majority of the portions removed from the 350 are likely to be unrecoverable because they have probably been sold for scrap,” the museum said in the statement.

Of the 1,500 missing or stolen items, just 351 have been returned to the museum so far, it added.

The crisis dates back to 2021, when a Danish art dealer got in touch with the museum to say he had spotted several items he believed to be from its collection for sale online. The museum initially said it had carried out a thorough investigation, but a follow-up probe found the first response to be insufficient, British Museum Chair George Osborne said at the time the news broke in August this year.

The museum’s then-director, Hartwig Fischer, stepped down over the affair.

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The museum said its board of trustees had unanimously accepted the review’s recommendations, most importantly that it “completes the documentation of its collection and closes any gaps in the registration of objects.”

This is already underway, according to the museum, with a program to document and digitize the entire collection within the next five years.

Osborne, the former UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, said: “This Review shows the British Museum is putting our own house in order, indeed we commissioned it because we were determined to learn the lessons of what went wrong.

“The British Museum was the victim of thefts over a long period, and we apologise again that this was allowed to happen. The ongoing police investigation means the full report cannot be published today, but we have accepted the recommendations in full, and have started to recover hundreds of the stolen items.”

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