British Museum chair estimates 2,000 artefacts were stolen in recent years
The emerging scandal has led to the resignation of the museum's director, but this is the first time a number has been declared
A total of around 2,000 artefacts are believed to have been stolen from the British Museum, the museum's chair of trustees George Osborne said on Saturday, 26 August.
In a scandal that has seen the resignation of the museum's director Hatrwig Fischer, the museum had initially said that "items from the collection" had been stolen, without giving a specific figure.
"I will give you an estimate of around 2,000. But I have to say that's a very provisional figure," Osborne told BBC Radio in an interview.
"We have started to recover some of the stolen items, which is a silver lining to a dark cloud," Osborne added.
The museum said the missing pieces include gold jewellery, semi-precious gems and glass items dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD
Osborne blames 'groupthink' for security failure
The museum was first alerted to the missing items in 2021, when it was contacted by British–Danish art historian and dealer Ittai Gradel.
Gradel told the Associated Press that he noticed objects for sale on eBay that reportedly belonged to a collection donated to the museum in 1814. He said he then found the identity of the seller through PayPal, who turned out to be a museum staff member who has since been fired.
According to Gradel, the museum's deputy director said a thorough investigation had found no improprieties and "he basically told me to sod off and mind my own business".
In his resignation statement on Friday, Fischer said the museum "did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021". He also apologised to Gradel, who he previously implied had withheld some information.
On Saturday, Osborne attributed the museum's failure to act on warnings to "potential groupthink" that "just couldn't believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn't believe that one of the members of staff were doing this".
"We believe we've been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and, frankly, more could have been done to prevent them," he added.
As a former Conservative finance minister under then-prime minister David Cameron and later as the editor of the influential London Evening Standard, Osborne is a comparatively high-profile chair for the board of trustees. He was once seen as a potential successor to Cameron, until the 2016 Brexit referendum results led to rapid and far-reaching personnel changes in the Conservative Party.
Meanwhile, London's Metropolitan Police said on Thursday, 24 August, that it had interviewed a man in relation to the reported thefts and that the museum said it was taking legal action against the same individual. No arrests have been made, however.
British Museum collections under fire
The British Museum is one of the most famous galleries in the world.
Its collections include the Rosetta Stone that unlocked the language of ancient Egypt, scrolls bearing 12th-century Chinese poetry and masks created by the indigenous people of Canada.
Critics say many of these items — most notably the Pantheon marbles from Greece and the Benin bronzes from Nigeria — were stolen from their respective homelands and should be repatriated.
The museum claims it is protecting the world's cultural heritage in some of these cases.
"We want to tell the British Museum that they cannot any more say that Greek heritage is more protected in the British Museum," Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, told the BBC after news of the thefts emerged this week.