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Why the British Museum Is Asking the Public for Help Finding Missing Artifacts

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The British Museum has solicited the public’s help in finding an estimated 2,000 artifacts that had been stolen from the institution’s collection over the course of several years. The famed museum launched a new website and email hotline on Tuesday requesting help in sharing information that might lead to the items’ recovery.

"If you are concerned that you may be, or have been, in possession of items from the British Museum, or if you have any other information that may help us, please contact us," the museum’s website said.

In August, the museum announced that around 2,000 artifacts with a net value of millions of pounds were believed to have been stolen from its collection. It said 60 items had been returned to the museum, and another 300 were identified and in the process of retrieval. 

The theft has renewed debate over contested artifacts in the  museum’s collection, many of which were acquired under British colonial rule. Countries, including Greece and China have called for the museum to return artifacts to the countries which created them. 

What was stolen?

The missing artifacts are dated from between 15th century BC and the 19th century AD and include gold jewelry and semi-precious gemstones. They were not on public display, with most confined to a museum storeroom. 

The British Museum is working with the Art Loss Register, the world's largest database of stolen art. The museum has established a hotline for anyone with information to come forward and plans to continue to provide updates on “the material that we have recovered and recognition of the many people offering us help”.

As a security precaution, the website only shares the “type of material” stolen and includes images of similar items—including a Greek gold chain from 3 B.C. and classical Greek and Roman gems. 

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“The British Museum’s approach has carefully balanced the need to provide information to the public to assist the recovery efforts with the fact that providing too much detail risks playing into the hands of those who might act in bad faith,” said James Ratcliffe, the Director of Recoveries at the Art Loss Register said in a statement

Calls for return

Accusations about the museum’s handling of artifacts—and the practices through which the museum acquired them—have been thrust back in the spotlight, with several countries calling for the museum to repatriate their holdings back to their countries of origin. 

Some items were being sold on the ecommerce platform, eBay, including one Roman artifact— valued at over £50,000—offered on the platform for £40, according to the Telegraph

The thefts are under investigation by London’s Metropolitan Police Service. Hartwig Fischer, the museum’s previous director, resigned from his role late last month after it was revealed that an antique dealer reportedly notified the museum of the thefts in 2021, but no action was taken.  

Peter Higgs, a senior curator for the museum, was fired last month and has been accused of selling the artifacts online, though his family has denied any wrongdoing.

The museum does not have a full catalog of all the items in its collection of more than 8 million artifacts, according to the Guardian, which may be why losses went unnoticed for so long.

“Someone with knowledge of what’s not registered has a big advantage in removing some of those items,” said George Osborne, chair of the British Museum, and former U.K. Chancellor of the Exchequer, told the Guardian.

The news of the thefts has prompted calls for the museum to return the items to the countries they came from. Nigeria’s government has called for the return of Benin Bronzes, which were looted by British troops in 1897.

“The Museum is committed to active engagement with Nigerian institutions concerning the Benin Bronzes, including pursuing and supporting new initiatives developed in collaboration with Nigerian partners and colleagues,” the British Museum says on its website. “This includes full participation in the Benin Dialogue Group and working towards the aim of facilitating a new permanent display of Benin works of art in Benin City, to include works from the British Museum's collections.”

The British Museum has long claimed to have a higher standard of care for the artifacts than the countries they were taken from, as justification for keeping hold of them.

An op-ed in China’s state-run newspaper, Global Times requested the return of over 23,000 artifacts in the museum’s possession. “The vast majority of the British Museum’s huge collection of up to eight million items came from countries other than the U.K., and a significant portion of it was acquired through improper channels, even dirty and sinful means,” the editorial noted. 

“The British Museum has a long history of cultural collaboration in China,” the museum said in a statement to TIME. “The museum believes that displaying objects from China alongside cultural material from other parts of the world helps people understand China’s long history better. We have received no official request for the return of any objects in the collection by the Chinese government.”

Read More: European Museums Keep Talking About Repatriating Colonial Objects. African Artists and Curators Have Ideas on How to Actually Make It Happen

In another op-ed published in response to the scandal, Greece’s culture minister Lina Mendoni called for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures long held by the museum, arguing that the theft was proof the museum was not capable of safeguarding the items in its possession.
“The unprecedented case of the theft of hundreds of valuable objects of the British Museum, with perpetrators appointed to protect its collections, in addition to criminal and moral responsibilities, raises the major question of the credibility of the museum organization itself,” she wrote. “At the same time, the last argument of the British that the Parthenon Sculptures are supposedly safer in this particular Museum than in Athens, in the Acropolis Museum, collapses once again.” The museum maintains that it obtained the sculptures legally and that “successive Greek governments have refused to consider borrowing or to acknowledge the Trustees ownership of the Parthenon sculptures in their care.”

The missing artifacts are not the only scandal the museum has been caught up in. Earlier this week, The National reported that the museum had purchased an ancient Egyptian artifact from a dealer in New York who had been convicted of smuggling artifacts. A British Museum representative told The National, “Establishing the provenance of an object is an integral part of the museum’s acquisition process. We have been offering assistance to the US authorities in New York with enquiries since 2019. It would be inappropriate to comment further while these remain ongoing.”

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Write to Simmone Shah at simmone.shah@time.com