Antiquities dealer who uncovered British Museum theft was treated like ‘village idiot’ (2023)

The man who uncovered the biggest ever theft from the British Museum says that he has been treated like a “village idiot” by its two most senior executives, and said they must be sacked to prevent further damage to the world-renowned institution.

Ittai Gradel, a Danish antiquities dealer, said the “slow torture” of disclosures about the scandal will only be halted by the departure of the museum’s director Hartwig Fischer and his deputy Jonathan Williams.

Speaking exclusively to the Telegraph, Dr Gradel explained how he uncovered the theft of the decade with years of detective work and said that he had “suffered horribly” as the British Museum “refused to listen” to his warnings for two years.

Had it not been for Dr Gradel’s refusal to take no for an answer, resulting in him directly contacting George Osborne, the museum’s chairman, after being “fobbed off” by its managers, the theft of more than 1,500 objects might still have remained unknown.

But rather than thanking him for discovering the thefts, Dr Fischer has gone on the attack, effectively blaming Dr Gradel for the two-year delay in confirming the treasures were missing.

The whole episode has turned into an unedifying row being played out to the entire antiquities world, which has been seized upon by those who have long demanded the return of “stolen” artefacts including the Elgin Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.

Dr Gradel, 58, has maintained his silence since the museum first went public with news of the theft last week but said he could no longer stand by while the museum went through a “nuclear meltdown” under the management of men he accuses of “incompetence”.

“The management has lost control of events,” he said. “Hartwig Fischer is a setting sun who has already said he is leaving next year. It is pointless and absurd that he insists on clinging on.

“As for his deputy Dr Williams, I simply cannot find an explanation. Why did he not follow the trail back when I sent him the evidence?

“The museum deserves so much better. It is one of the glories of human civilisation but it is being ridiculed all over the world.”

Dr Gradel’s repeated warnings finally culminated in the announcement last week that jewels dating as far back as 1500 BC were “missing, stolen or damaged” and that a member of staff – now known to be former curator Peter Higgs – had been dismissed. Mr Higgs denies any wrongdoing.

Dr Gradel first alerted the museum to his suspicions of the thefts via a middleman in 2020, then in February 2021 contacted Dr Williams directly, with a dossier of evidence showing that items were being sold on eBay from a seller with a bank account in the name of Peter Higgs.

But he explained it was back in 2016 that his suspicions were first aroused.

“I saw a cameo fragment for sale on eBay, which was taken down from the site after a few hours, but I had taken a screenshot of it because I recognised it,” said Dr Gradel, who spent hours in the British Museum as a student and then a university don in England when he was younger. “It looked like a line drawing that had been published in the British Museum catalogue of 1926.”

Dr Gradel had bought items from the same seller starting in 2014, and when he asked the seller – whose eBay name was sultan1966 – where they had come from, he was told the seller’s grandfather had owned a junk shop in York between the wars.

Dr Gradel still suspected the item was stolen but thought it must have been taken from the museum decades ago because there was no recent inventory of it, “so there was no urgency”, he said.

“I didn’t want to alert the seller so I kept mum and kept following him to see if anything else came up.”

It took another four years – until 2020 – for his breakthrough. A fragment of a Roman cameo was put on eBay and this time there was a colour photograph of it on the British Museum website. “I saw immediately that this was a very recent photo,” he said. “So I knew this whole provenance story about the junk shop was a lie.”

He began checking back through his own records, the British Museum’s records and other publicly available sources to see if other stolen items might have been on the market, and came to the uncomfortable conclusion that he had been inadvertently handling stolen goods if all of the items he had bought from sultan1966 were from the museum.

Because there is no complete record of all eight million items in the museum’s collection, it was impossible to verify whether most of them had been stolen from there, but he had bought about 70 items from sultan1966, ranging from £15 for a Medusa cameo to a few hundred pounds.

They included a ring he bought for £150 on the assumption that it was a copy of an Egyptian artefact, but when it arrived “it was the real thing – it dated from the Ptolemaic kingdom” which ended in the reign of Cleopatra.

Dr Gradel said: “I contacted the seller and told him it was genuine, so I offered to send it back or send him another £500. He took the £500.”

In 2020 he asked an art dealer friend to alert the museum to the apparent thefts in 2020 while he continued his investigations.

A fragment of a plasma gem, bought by another dealer for £69 in 2015, matched a picture in the museum’s inventory, making three items that he was sure were stolen. He was convinced that someone with access to the museum’s collection had been stealing uncatalogued items to avoid detection, but got “sloppy” and sold some items that were traceable.

“It only made sense if the items that could be traced back to the museum were the tip of a much larger iceberg,” said Dr Gradel. He suspected another 150 items he had bought from a third party had also originated from the museum.

He contacted a retired keeper from the museum who told him that there were “large piles” of unregistered gems and that when one collection of 942 uncatalogued items was checked, only seven were found to be remaining.

The sultan1966 eBay account stopped selling antiquities around 2020, said Dr Gradel, and after that it started selling old Abba LPs and used kitchen utensils for as little as 50p.

When he checked his records he could see that sultan1966’s PayPal account was linked to a bank account in the name of Peter Higgs.

He sent his dossier of evidence to Dr Williams in February 2021, by which time Mr Higgs had been promoted from curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period to keeper of Greek collections, meaning he was in charge of the Elgin Marbles, among other items.

Emails seen by the Telegraph show that Dr Williams took until July 2021 to respond, when he said the objects were “all accounted for” and the allegations were “wholly unfounded”. Dr Williams offered to send Dr Gradel contact numbers for the police.

The following year Dr Gradel contacted museum trustee Sir Paul Ruddock to air his concerns.

Internal emails show that in October 2022 Dr Fischer said the case had been “thoroughly investigated” and there was “no evidence to substantiate the allegations”.

“They treated me like some village idiot,” said Dr Gradel. “I suppose they feared the scandal.”

He later contacted Dr Fischer directly with his evidence, to no avail, and it was only when he directly contacted George Osborne, who became the museum’s chairman in October 2021, that a proper audit was done and discovered close to 2,000 missing items.

Dr Gradel said: “Clearly the director and deputy director thought I would just go away. Maybe they had a siege mentality because they were consistently subject to these attacks from people calling the museum a repository of stolen objects.

“I have suffered horribly over this, first finding out I had handled stolen goods and then the fact that the museum refused to listen.

“It didn’t dawn on them at all that I was also a victim in all this. But if I hadn’t pursued it to the end I would have been complicit in a crime, if not in the legal sense then certainly in a moral sense, and I just couldn’t live with that.”

Dr Gradel, who lives two hours west of Copenhagen, has received a letter of thanks from Sir Nigel Boardman, the former trustee who is in charge of an internal inquiry into the thefts, and has been told he will be formally thanked by Mr Osborne.

He has never been thanked by Dr Fischer or Dr Williams, and Dr Fischer has now tried to suggest that Dr Gradel did not give the museum as much information as he could have done.

Dr Fischer said: “When allegations were brought to us in 2021 we took them incredibly seriously, and immediately set up an investigation.

“Concerns were only raised about a small number of items, and our investigation concluded that those items were all accounted for.

“We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.”

In response, Dr Gradel said: “They never even contacted me. I was waiting the whole time for them to ask me to give testimony. Why can’t they just own up to their responsibility?”

The thefts are currently the subject of a police investigation, but for Dr Gradel it is the future of his beloved British Museum that is paramount.

“The directorate needs to go,” he said. “It is slow torture the longer they stay. To see it in the hands of such incompetent people is painful – it needs a fresh start.”


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