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The starting prices for these stolen items were surprisingly low, with some set as low as $50, despite some of the stolen pieces being valued in excess of $60,000 each.
This disturbing revelation points to an ongoing issue of stolen jewelry from the museum being illicitly introduced on eBay, stretching back to at least 2016.
An antiquities expert alerted the museum about their suspicion three years ago, raising the possibility of an insider’s involvement in the persistent vanishing of items from the museum’s vaults.
The individual under suspicion, who was subsequently dismissed following an internal investigation into the thefts, has been identified as 56-year old Peter Higgs.
He was a curator specializing in Mediterranean cultures and had been employed at the museum for over three decades, including organizing major exhibitions at the British Museum. Higgs claims his innocence in this matter, but the thefts are now under criminal investigation.
The revelation has sparked concerns about the British Museum’s procedures in handling and addressing these thefts, prompting law enforcement agencies to initiate a criminal investigation.
Last week, the British Museum revealed that an unspecified number of jewelry pieces made of gold, semi-precious stones, and glass, ranging from 1,500 BC to the 19th century AD, had gone missing.
While some items were reported as stolen, others had suffered damage. Interestingly, a Roman jewelry piece crafted from onyx, a semi-precious gem, surfaced on eBay in 2016 with an initial bidding price of $50.
Ironically, the item received no bids, despite trade experts estimating its true value to be between $30,000 and $60,000.
In an attempt to recover the stolen items and assess the extent of the losses, George Osborne, the chairperson of the British Museum, has initiated an independent investigation to shed light on the circumstances around this incident.
Sources within the art community shared with The Telegraph that the British Museum’s failure to meticulously catalog its vast collection of eight million objects has made it easier for thefts to go unnoticed.
Professor Martin Henig, a leading expert on Roman art at the University of Oxford, told the publication, “Major things do get cataloged. There are a lot of minor things that are not, or which are all lumped together.”
A spokesperson for the British Museum added, “We are also taking further robust actions to ensure this can never happen again.”
eBay: An Outlet for Stolen Goods
Unfortunately, this again underscores a persistent problem on eBay. The marketplace is an easy outlet for stolen items, from art to everyday items. Last year, we reported on a stolen art piece that was accidentally uncovered on eBay in Australia by an art dealer, but it has since been returned to the museum with his help.
While museum items may not constitute the majority of issues on the marketplace, stolen goods from department stores are a far bigger problem and much more difficult to catch.
For example, a Tennessee pawnshop was arrested in 2022 for allegedly selling millions of stolen merchandise on eBay. And that is just one of several such incidents.
eBay has a stolen goods policy, but enforcing it is difficult and requires help from the community.
In the Australian example, it was an art dealer who identified the stolen item and purchased it, enabling it to be returned. And with organized crime or pawn shop cases, it’s often the department stores or brands that identify the potential thefts and usually have to ask law enforcement to initiate an investigation.
Legislation such as the INFORM Consumers Act may help reduce these issues. But ultimately, it appears that a significant external investigation is needed before eBay becomes aware of these illicit listings.
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