British Museum's Recovery Programme

Sara Aly of the British Museum's recovery programme inspecting some of the recovered artefacts.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

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The museum announced this week that another 268 items are now back in its hands, taking the total of recovered items to 626. The latest recoveries are all gems and cast impressions.

While around 875 objects remain untraced, the museum also confirmed that it is currently working on new leads for around 100 objects which are located in a number of different countries.

In all, approximately 1500 works were identified as missing or stolen last year, while a further 500 objects were damaged. Roughly 350 of the damaged items had portions of gold removed and are unlikely to be recoverable while around 140 were damaged by tool marks.

The museum said its recovery operation is global with objects now recovered from areas across Europe and North America as well as the UK. It is still urging anyone with information about the missing objects to get in touch.

Major theft

In August 2023 the museum confirmed that a large number of works had been removed from its storerooms over a long period and a member of staff had been dismissed. The items included gold jewellery, gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.

Reports quickly emerged that some of the works had been offered on eBay since at least 2016, such as a Roman onyx cameo which was listed on the online auction platform with a £40 starting bid but with a real value in the five figures.

Back in September, the museum revealed it is working with a team of recovery experts including James Ratcliffe, director of recoveries at Art Loss Register, and Lynda Albertson at Association for Research into Crimes against Art. It also launched a webpage detailing some of the types of objects missing.

A dedicated team within the museum is also still working with the Metropolitan Police and an international group of experts in gems to investigate the thefts and trace missing items. The museum has also embarked upon a five-year plan to complete the documentation and digitisation of the entire collection.

In March this year the Trustees of the British Museum lodged a 24-page outline of its claim against Dr Peter John Higgs at the High Court. Higgs worked at the museum from 1993-2023 rising to become Curator of Ancient Greek Collections and the acting head of the Greece & Rome department.

The claim alleges that he ‘abused his position of trust’ by ‘stealing gems, jewellery, gold, silver and other items from the collection’. Higgs has denied the accusations.

British Museum's Recovery Programme

Ollie Croker, project curator, and Sara Aly, art market expert, from the British Museum's recovery programme.

Image courtesy of the British Museum

Chair of the British Museum George Osborne said: “When we announced the devastating news that objects had been stolen from our collection, people understandably assumed that was it – we were unlikely to ever see more than a handful of them again. That’s usually the history with thefts like this.

“But the team at the British Museum refused to give up. Through clever detective work and a network of well-wishers we’ve achieved a remarkable result: more than 600 of the objects are back with us, and a further 100 have been identified – in total almost half the stolen items that we could recover.

“It’s a great result but we’re not resting here – the hunt goes on for the remaining missing objects. I urge anyone with any information to follow the example of all who’ve helped us and get in touch.”

The museum’s recovery programme webpage has published photographs of some of the items that have been returned in order to give an indication of the types of material that were stolen.

Ten of the recovered objects are also now on display for free in Room 3 of the British Museum as part of a show titled Rediscovering Gems.

Anyone with knowledge of missing items or who is concerned that they may have inadvertently purchased something from the collection is encouraged them to contact