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British Museum bosses were ‘in denial’ says priest  

24 August 2023


The British Museum

The British Museum

WARNINGS that the British Mu­­seum was being stolen from appear not to have been acted upon by its directors for several years, the priest-archa­­e­­ologist involved in identifying some of the stolen artefacts says.

On Friday afternoon, the museum’s Director, Hartwig Fischer, resigned, saying that he accepted responsibility for the museum’s failure to respond “as comprehensively as it should have” to warnings received in 2021.

The priest-archaeologist involved in identifying some of the stolen artefacts said this week that directors of the museum appeared not to have acted upon warnings.

In 2020, the Revd Professor Martin Henig identified a Roman gemstone, which was available for sale, as belonging to the British Mu­­seum. After the item was returned to the museum, Professor Henig, with the scholar and art dealer Dr Ittai Gradel, found evidence of other items for sale which had seemingly been stolen from the museum’s col­lec­tion.

Professor Henig, who is a self-supporting priest in the diocese of Oxford, said that despite urging the directors of the museum to take ac­­tion, the duo were “fobbed off again and again. . . The directors of the mu­­seum seemed to be in com­­plete denial.”

Reports in recent days have sug­gested that more than 1500 items have been stolen from the British Museum. On Wednesday of last week, the trustees announced an in­­dependent review.

In July, a curator at the museum, Peter Higgs, was sacked, and the Metropolitan Police announced that they had opened an investigation. No arrests have yet been made, and Mr Higgs’s family say that he denies any wrongdoing.

Speaking to the Church Times on Wednesday, Professor Henig said that the museum’s response was “one of these cover-ups which seem to be in all sorts of pro­fes­sions, including the Church: there are places where there is denial be­­cause you don’t want to damage the insti­tu­tion”.

Cotswold ArchaeologyProfessor Henig photographed in 2016

On Tuesday, The Daily Telegraph published details of the corres­­pond­­ence between Dr Gradel and the de­puty director of the British Mu­­seum, Dr Jonathan Williams.

In one email, sent in July 2021, Dr Williams wrote that the allegations were “wholly unfounded”, and other emails show that, last year, the dir­­ector of the museum, Dr Hartwig Fischer, had told trustees that the issue had been fully investigated, and the items in question had been ac­­counted for. Dr Gradel persisted, and directly contacted George Osborne, who chairs the museum’s trustees, at the start of this year, who assured him that further invest­iga­tions would take place.

Although significant, the mon­­et­­ary worth of the stolen items did not reflect their full value, Professor Henig said. “These are some of the most intimate ob­­jects about what daily life in the ancient world was like. They tell us so much about life, about religious, about mythology, all sorts of things like that, and that’s why I’ve been studying them for 50 years.”

Professor Henig grew up in a “lapsed Jewish” family, and studied archaeology at Cambridge and Ox­­ford, before settling in the latter in­­stitution. He was baptised, aged 60, in 2002, and studied for ordination at St Stephen’s House, Oxford, be­­fore being ordained priest in 2011.

The turn to detective work was not one that he expected, al­­though there were parallels with his career and his vocation. “When you’re an archae­ologist, you want to find out what happened in the past, you try to reconstruct things. . . It seems to me we have to get to the bot­tom of it, just as if it was an archae­ological ex­­cavation.” The “ques­tion of motiva­tion”, he said, was one that prompted theo­logical reflection.

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