Not just British: hundreds of objects disappear from British museums

It is not only the British Museum that has reported objects disappearing from its collection, due to theft: the problem, in British museums, would be quite extensive, according to an investigation by the Independent.

The recent thefts at the British Museum in London would not be an isolated case. Last year, the great London museum discovered that at least 1,500 pieces in the museum, arranged along a chronological span from the 15th century B.C. to the 19th century, had disappeared, due to theft: the seriousness of the affair was such that it led director Hartwig Fischer to resign. The case of British museum thefts , however, appears to be much larger, according to an investigation by The Independent newspaper published last April 9.

Among those who responded to the newspaper’s questions are such major museums as theImperial War Museum, the National History Museum , and the National Museum of Scotland: all have recently reported the disappearance of objects.

The Imperial War Museum, in particular, reported 539 objects lost between 2018 and 2023 and one object stolen, while the National History Museum revealed that 13 objects had disappeared in the past five years. During the same period, the National Museum of Scotland reported the loss of six objects from its collections, one object stolen, and another destroyed in a fire. Among the objects missing from the National History Museum are mammal teeth from the Mesozoic era, which would be more than 65 million years old, and a gastrolite allegedly stolen from the Dinosaur Gallery. The National Museum of Scotland said that a telephone belonging to the De Havilland Comet 4C (the world’s first commercial passenger plane), went missing in 2022.

Still, the Science Museum Group reported four objects recorded as lost between 2018 and 2023, while the National Museum of Wales said a total of 16 objects have gone missing since 2017, and 1,921 is the total number of objects that have been lost since the museum began caring for objects. Meanwhile, it emerged last year that a famous sculpture by Auguste Rodin had been missing from the Glasgow Museums’ collection for 75 years: it is Les Bourgeois de Calais, a work that was last seen when it was exhibited in 1949 at Kelvingrove Park, where it also reportedly suffered damage. Jérôme le Blay, director of the Comité Rodin, which maintains a catalog of the artist’s works, estimated that the sculpture’s value today would be about £3 million. Museums that have not reported losses, however, include the National Gallery, the Victoria and Albert Museum, and the Tate.

The Imperial War Museum said the sum includes only objects that are still reported to be lost, because the museum “frequently” recovers other missing objects, according to theIndependent. He added that the figure should be put in the context of the size of the museum’s overall collections, which stood at 33,680,654 pieces in the last annual report. The Museum of Wales said it currently holds more than 5.3 million objects and has managed them since 1870; most of those lost are small or of low financial value. A spokesperson said, “Although we have vigorous collection management and security procedures in place, because of the size of the collection and with at least 1.3 million people visiting our seven museums a year, some losses are unfortunately inevitable.”

A spokesperson for the National History Museum said, “We take the security of our collection very seriously, so in the last ten years we have had only fourteen cases of lost or missing items from a collection of 80 million, limited to small things like teeth, fish, and frozen animal tissue, and only one confirmed theft.”

According to some former officers of the London Metropolitan Police’s Art and Antiques Unit, who spoke to the Independent, part of the blame lies with the impact of budget and staff cuts over the years, a situation that has depowered art crime investigations in London, with the squad sometimes even in danger of closing. In 2017, for example, three of the unit’s four officers were transferred to deal with the tragedy of the Grenfell Tower fire, leaving only one officer on the team. One source, who wished to remain anonymous, said, “Budget cuts have had a huge impact on investigative powers. It was an incredibly small unit that punched above its weight and had a worldwide reputation. When you start depriving the team of three or four people, clearly that will have an impact. It’s sad.”

The British Museum, once the thefts were discovered, pledged to act immediately on all available recommendations, starting with an independent reconnaissance of the museum’s security measures concluded late last year. The museum fired a longtime curator, Paul Higgs, over the missing objects and sued him in the High Court. Museum attorneys say Higgs “abused his position of trust” to steal antique gems, gold jewelry and other pieces from the storerooms over the course of a decade. Higgs, who worked in the museum’s Greek and Roman art department for more than two decades, has denied the allegations and plans to contest the museum’s legal claims. Police are also investigating, but no one has been charged at the moment.

A former staff member of a major U.K. museum, who wished to remain anonymous, said he was not at all surprised to hear of the problems plaguing the British Museum because he said the problems affect the entire sector. He blamed cataloguing failures caused by a continuing lack of specialist expertise, which in turn has happened at least in part as a result of funding cuts in the context of an expansion of the sector. He said, “People who have to learn on the job without specialized knowledge are expected to go and catalog things they are not sure about.”

Not just British: hundreds of objects disappear from British museums
Not just British: hundreds of objects disappear from British museums

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