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BM review seeks tighter security &

Geraldine Kendall Adams, Review urges tighter security and record-keeping at British Museum, Museums Association, 12 December 2023

Stolen objects were allegedly sold on eBay for as little as £50.

The British Museum has committed to fully digitising its collection within five years.

An independent review has told the British Museum to close gaps in the registration and documentation of objects following the discovery of thefts from its collection.

The review, which published its findings this week, was led by solicitor and British Museum trustee Nigel Boardman, chief constable Lucy D’Orsi, and deputy high court judge Ian Karet. Further recommendations cover audit and risk, governance, and security protocols, with the report also urging the museum to review its approach to suspending employees.

For security reasons, just four pages of the 30-page report have been made publicly available. The museum has confirmed that the recommendations have been accepted by its board of trustees and work is already underway or completed on around a third of them.

One key measure is the museum’s plan to complete the documentation and digitisation of the entire collection within the next five years in order to “eliminate any pockets of unregistered objects and ensure that the British Museum’s collection is the most viewed, studied and used in the world”.

Speaking to the BBC today, British Museum chairman George Osborne said the staff member accused of the thefts, who was dismissed last year, has not been talking or co-operating with the investigation.

The staff member, a former senior curator, has previously denied any wrongdoing. It is estimated that the alleged thief pocketed around £100,000 over a 30-year period from selling items from the museum storerooms.

Some of the artefacts – most of which were not catalogued by the museum – were sold on eBay for around £50, according to the antiquities dealer who first reported the thefts, Ittai Gradel.

Osborne said in a statement: “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.

“Above all, we’re determined to emerge from this period a stronger, more open, and more confident museum that is fit for the future. Thanks to the hard work of the review team we’re now equipped to do just that.”

Mark Jones, the museum’s interim director, said: “This is a helpful set of recommendations, many of which we are already delivering on. No-one can pretend this has been an easy period for the museum, but I have the utmost admiration for the commitment of the staff to building a stronger future for the museum we all care so deeply about.”

  • Approximately 2,000 items have been identified as damaged or missing from the collection. Within that, the number of items missing or stolen is around 1,500
  • A key target appears to have been unregistered items – mainly gems and jewellery – in the Department of Greece and Rome
  • Around 350 items have had portions removed, such as gold mounts for gems. The majority of these are likely to be unrecoverable because they have probably been sold for scrap
  • Around 140 items have been damaged by tool marks
  • Of the 1,500 missing or stolen items, 351 items have already been returned into the museum’s possession, and more than 300 further items have been identified.