British Museum Theft: A Long-Term Operation with 2,000 Cultural Relics Missing

  ”The British Museum received relevant warnings in 2021, but did not respond fully as it should. The responsibility for that dereliction of duty must ultimately be borne by the director.” On August 25, local time, Hartwig Fey, Director of the British Museum Scheer issued a statement and later announced his resignation.
  CCTV reported that the theft from the British Museum became a hot topic in the UK after it was revealed by the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) on August 16. If not, then the German Hartwig Fischer, who has been the director of the British Museum since 2016, must still be in office. The British Museum may also continue to maintain its usual status, with the same security and management as before. It is claimed that the museum contains more than eight million items, but the actual exhibition is only the tip of the iceberg. The rest of the cultural relics, which have been stored in warehouses for hundreds of years and have not seen the light of day, may one day be stolen and taken away…
A steady flow of no-cost trading

  What’s missing from the British Museum’s warehouses? According to what the museum called the police before Fischer resigned, it was mainly “gold, jewelry and glassware produced from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.” Based on this, it can be concluded that the era of the lost collection in the British Museum spans nearly three thousand years!

With a collection of more than 8 million objects, the British Museum is one of the largest museums in the world.

  The British Museum is an internationally renowned museum, and the Charter of the International Council of Museums has clear regulations on how museums should treat and protect cultural relics. At present, no matter what, the British Museum has not done its due diligence in protecting cultural relics.

  CCTV quoted content disclosed by the British newspaper Associated Press as saying that the lost collection was believed to have been taken away “over a considerable period of time.” A well-known Roman art expert at the University of Oxford said that his colleagues had seen some items on the electronic shopping platform eBay website a few years ago, and the impression was that they were highly similar to those seen in the British Museum. From this, we can judge that this is not a one-time theft case, but a long-term business. But the strange thing is that the prices of these items on Yibei’s website are so low that it is completely impossible to imagine that the items for sale are cultural relics. For example, a cultural relic from the British Museum collection with an estimated value of up to 50,000 pounds appeared on eBay in at least 2016 and was sold for only 40 pounds. In response, a spokesperson for Yibei website said: “Yibei will not tolerate the sale of stolen property. If we find that an item for sale is stolen, we will immediately remove it and cooperate with law enforcement.” Online
  sales So, what about offline? Danish antiques dealer Itai Gradel said he first became suspicious of a seller in 2016. At that time, he immediately recognized an object that he had seen in the British Museum many years ago. When he asked the seller about the item’s origins, he was told that his grandfather had owned a thrift store during the war. The seller’s asking price struck Gradel as shockingly low.
  Why do thieves sell cultural relics at extremely low prices? What is the purpose of this kind of selling method? It seems incredible. But if you look at it from another perspective, the price offered by thieves to sell stolen goods is of course different from that of a regular art auction. The main thing they want is to be able to take action and sell the stolen goods. Once successful, it is equivalent to no capital gain. And if you can’t do it, then all your efforts in the early stage will be in vain. Therefore, those who sell stolen goods do not expect that the cultural relics they steal can be sold at high prices. Christopher Marinello, a lawyer and CEO of the International Art Renaissance Organization, gave an example of this – in 2005, a work by the sculptor Henry Moore was stolen. The statue was worth 3 million pounds, but the criminals wanted to paint the statue. of gold and chose to have the artwork melted down. In other words, criminals only want to sell the gold price. To achieve this goal, the artistic added value, cultural added value, etc. of the work can be completely reduced to zero.
  On the day the British Museum theft was exposed, the museum announced the dismissal of Peter Higgs, the 56-year-old curator of the Greek museum who had worked at the British Museum for 35 years. At the same time, it launched an independent security review and said it would take legal action against Higgs. This public move seems to confirm the theory that “someone within the museum may be suspected of selling off the collection.” At the same time, the London police announced the launch of an investigation, but no arrests have been made yet. The subsequent statements of George Osborne, the former British Chancellor of the Exchequer and Chairman of the Board of Trustees of the British Museum, have made people feel even more confused. “Board members were made aware of this earlier in the year,” Osborne said. Gradel said that he contacted the British Museum in 2021 to raise his doubts, but the then deputy director of the museum, Jonathan Williams, responded in July of that year that there was “no sign of impropriety.”
  In this way, if the problem of missing cultural relics had not been exposed, perhaps the British Museum, especially the museum’s board of directors, would still be indifferent, not call the police, or even do nothing. But George Osborne was able to report the number of stolen cultural relics – 2,000! This number is 500 more than the number previously reported by the media.
  Why did the British Museum not call the police for a long time, but seemed to be conniving at the steady sale of stolen goods? In an interview with “Xinmin Weekly”, Professor Li Weifang of the School of International Law of East China University of Political Science and Law said: “The British Museum is an internationally renowned museum, and the International Association of Museums’ charter has clear regulations on how museums should treat and protect cultural relics. The association passed it in 1986 The “Code of Museum Ethics” embodies the common values ​​and basic principles of the global museum industry. At present, no matter what, the British Museum has not done a good job in protecting cultural relics.” Of course, if the case is further investigated, the British Museum will have a long-
  term The specific reasons for the indifference to the loss of cultural relics will emerge.
What is the origin of the first foreign curator in more than a century?

  On August 24, local time, the British Museum Board of Directors, led by George Osborne, had accepted Hartwig Fischer’s resignation, but required him to remain in office until the interim director was confirmed.
  Fischer was born in Hamburg, Germany, in December 1962. He is fluent in four languages: German, English, French and Italian. After graduating from the University of Bonn with a doctorate in 1994, he worked in an art museum in Basel, Switzerland for several years. In 2006, he returned to Germany and worked as the director of a contemporary art museum in Essen. In 2012 he was appointed director of the State Art Collection in Dresden. Adhering to the concept of internationalization, Fischer raised the influence of the Dresden State Art Collection from “European level” to “world level” in just a few years, and thus won an appointment from the British Museum.
  At that time, some British media questioned whether Fischer, as a foreigner, had the ability to continue the glory of the British Museum. He responded: “This is a truly international museum. Once you step through its door, there are no foreigners inside, only world culture. (Here) there are no boundaries and no restrictions.” Fischer in
  2016 Officially accept the invitation and take office. In the nearly 300-year history of the British Museum, the last time a foreigner served as director was the Italian artist Panizzi who took office in 1856.

  On August 28, the British Museum officially announced Fischer’s succession plan. In a statement, the British Museum spoke highly of Fischer’s work and believed that under his leadership, the museum has greatly expanded its partnerships on all continents around the world and attracted several times more sponsorship funding than before. In addition, , the British Museum has also successfully held a number of “epoch-making breakthrough” magnificent exhibitions.
  In terms of its treatment of Chinese cultural relics, the British Museum has made unforgivable mistakes. For example, the Tang copy of “The Picture of Women’s History” was not only plundered but also destroyed by the British. Between 1914 and 1915, this priceless ancient Chinese painting was actually divided into two long sections and a small section for preservation. The first section contained the original paintings of 9 scenes, the second section included all other later additions, and the third section Duan is a successive painting by Qing palace painter Zou Yigui. Moreover, due to the lack of knowledge in mounting Chinese paintings, the Tang copy of “The Picture of Women’s History” was replaced by a Japanese-style mounting when it was re-mounted – all the inscriptions and postscripts left by literati during the Ming and Qing Dynasties were destructively cut out.
  In the 1980s, the British Museum had to invite Qiu Jinxian, an expert in cultural relic restoration from the Shanghai Museum, to restore most of the Tang copy of “The Picture of Proverbs to a Female History” to its original appearance. According to Qiu Jinxian’s recollection, there were many silk paintings collected in the museum at that time, but due to poor preservation and fragmentation, they could only be placed like garbage in the museum storage room with poor conditions. “Pictures of Women’s Proverbs” is only one of the few preserved Just the “survivors” who came down.
  Over the years, the main reason and basis for the British Museum’s refusal to return cultural relics is the British Museum Act amended by the British Parliament in 1963, which basically prohibits the museum from returning any collection. Bell Ribilow, chairman of the British Parliament’s cross-party African reparations group, said: “One of the most insulting reasons given by the British Museum is that the countries to which these cultural relics belong either cannot protect the cultural relics or they may be stolen.” But. Current facts have proven that the treasures robbed by British colonists from all over the world may not be protected in the UK, nor may they not be stolen!
  What has been the situation since Fischer took office? Ye Ming, an anthropology scholar who has provided interpretation services for the British Museum for nearly 20 years, said that the direct reasons for the theft at the British Museum were inefficient management and loose collection protection mechanisms. Industry insiders also told reporters that the British Museum warehouse originally had regulations to implement a mechanism for two people to supervise each other in unlocking and entering. However, in recent years, due to problems such as funding shortages and staff loss, this mechanism has not been strictly implemented. In any case, as a curator, Fischer may not be proficient in Egyptian cultural relics or oriental art, but he should have comprehensive coordination capabilities, establish a sound management system, and employ people appropriately.
  Archaeologist Christos Chirojanis, head of UNESCO’s team dedicated to combating illegal antiquities trafficking, accused the British Museum: “In the digital age, the work of recording objects is easy, and it is unreasonable for museums to have loopholes in their records. Any museum The main goal of all museums should be to record the collection immediately. This is the first task and the most basic responsibility, but unfortunately, the British Museum failed to do it.” Dan Hicks, director of the Pitt Rivers Museum at the University of Oxford, publicly accused the Philippines Scheer — neglected to develop a proper catalog of its collections, resulting in many priceless artifacts suspected of being stolen that may not be recovered. Osborne said not all the collections held by the British Museum were officially recorded and catalogued.
  Ye Ming also revealed that at least when Fischer was the director, even though applicants were strictly scrutinized, there was rarely a corresponding protection mechanism for the collections in the museum. Therefore, once candidates become regular employees after being vetted, they can access the collection relatively casually by accessing files.

  Regardless of the value of the cultural relics lost in the British Museum, whether they are priceless or relatively cheap, they will ultimately harm its reputation.

  An analysis of the more than 2,000 stolen cultural relics revealed that they were mainly non-exhibits used for “academic and research purposes.” Less than 1% of the collection of the British Museum is on display. Fischer didn’t have a good idea on how to ensure that the huge library of non-exhibition items would not be missed by thieves.
Where to go in the future

  In the past 30 years, the British Museum has been stolen six times: in 1993, Roman coins from the museum’s collection were stolen; in 1997, several Persian books were stolen; in 2002, a 2,500-year-old ancient Greek statue was stolen; In 2004, more than a dozen Chinese bronze mirrors, armor and gemstones were stolen; in 2017, a Cartier diamond ring worth 750,000 pounds was revealed to have been stolen in 2011. The theft disclosed in August 2023, involving an unprecedented 2,000 pieces, was called “the largest theft in a museum that I know of so far” by Zirojanis.
  After the British Museum theft came to light this year, People’s Daily reporter Xu Dezhi asked Secretary-General Spokesperson Dujarric at the United Nations: “If the museum cannot protect the safety of these cultural relics, should they be sent back to their country?” Diarik Rick replied: “I will not comment on this specific incident. This question should be left to UNESCO. But I hope the police will investigate all thefts.” In fact, in addition to concerns from China, countries such as Egypt, Greece, etc. The capital expressed concern because the British Museum contains many collections originating from these places, which were illegally robbed and stolen to the UK by the British colonists. These countries are naturally concerned about whether these cultural relics will fall into the hands of thieves again, or even meet an even more tragic end. Professor Li Weifang analyzed that the laws of each country are different, and some countries also have the theory of “protecting good-faith possession”. It is very difficult to recover the cultural relics stolen from the British Museum. Even if it requires transnational cooperation, it may not be possible. All losses recovered.
  Zirojanis believes that the British Museum should immediately publish a list of missing items to help experts in the search. But the problem is, who trusts the incompletely cataloged British Museum to come up with an accurate list of missing items? Osborne’s claim that 2,000 pieces were lost is an accurate number or an estimate? Osborne said: “We have three priorities at the moment: first, recovering the stolen collection; second, identifying any measures that could have prevented this from happening; third, making every effort to invest in security and collection registration Work to ensure that such an incident will not happen again.” It is not difficult to see from this that the losses caused by the previous incomplete registration of collections may be difficult to make up for.
  Dick Ellis, an expert on art theft cases, analyzed that neither the London police nor the museum are currently willing to release photos or descriptions of stolen cultural relics. This shows that investigators may still be targeted, and perhaps they have already mastered the relevant cultural relics. Trace intelligence. “Typically, when conducting art recovery operations, investigators maximize the publicity of the collection to facilitate reporting by the public,” Ellis said. “Media attention may also lead to suspects destroying the art. .”
  ”The museum has many entrances and exits, and everyone enters and exits at will. It is also difficult for the museum to implement security inspections. They can only work hard on file management, emphasize concepts, and do their best to avoid theft incidents.” Ye Ming said. “Xinmin Weekly” reporters have been in and out of many museums in China and found that the security check process is quite effective. Even in the United States, a reporter once visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, went out for lunch, and then returned to the museum to continue the tour. No matter entering or leaving the museum, the security check is very strict. Why can’t the British Museum do strict security checks? It seems that the cultural differences between East and West cannot be simply compared.
  ”British Museum Report and Accounts 2022-2023″, the British Museum’s expenditure on most projects has increased in the 2022-2023 financial year. £51.4 million was spent on maintenance, research and conservation, compared with £43.2 million a year earlier; spending on charitable activities increased by £20.2 million to £91.7 million; and spending on other trading activities increased from £5.9 million to £8.7 million. But it ended its partnership with BP, its main funder. But even so, one cannot act in an attitude of laissez-faire about theft. Li Weifang analyzed to reporters: “No matter how valuable the cultural relics lost by the British Museum are, whether they are priceless or relatively cheap, they will ultimately damage its reputation.” In the future, how to integrate resources and reshape the image of the British National Museum should it become the British Museum The meaning of the title is clear!

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