Unravelling the legalities of the stolen British Museum artefacts

Glass roof inside the British Museum
11 Sep 2023

The scandal of the British Museum thefts has sparked an immense, international public reaction but, as litigation expert Rosie Adcock explains, determining rightful ownership of stolen relics is complex.

ArtsEd head quits after staff relations ‘damaged beyond repair’

The exterior of ArtsEd.
15 Jul 2024

An independent report into allegations of bullying and favouritism at ArtsEd found Principal Julie Spencer had called students 'snakes'.

UK-China: Opportunities, challenges and IP protection

Two women dancers
15 Jul 2024

As arts companies look internationally for new partnerships and audiences, Alex Lalak explores potential concerns about copyright protection when taking your work to China.

ACE: Race discrimination costs claim 'a matter of integrity'

Award-winning musician Speech Debelle
27 Jun 2024

Public body is seeking costs of £40,000 after claims by former Relationship Manager of harassment and persecution by colleagues were judged to be groundless.

Museum removes paintings amid Nazi looting probe

17 Jun 2024

A museum in Switzerland will take down five paintings suspected of being looted by Nazis after new international guidelines were laid out earlier this year to aid restitution of art that was previously stolen or forcibly sold. 

Kunsthaus Zurich Museum said the paintings - by Monet, Courbet, Toulouse-Lautrec, van Gogh and Gauguin - will be removed from display while an investigation is conducted.

The works form part of the Emil Bührle Collection, which has previously been the subject of provenance questions. 

Bührle was an arms dealer who sold weapons to the Nazis in World War Two. When he died in 1956, he had built a collection of some 600 artworks, many of which are on display at the Kunsthaus as part of a 20-year loan.

Switzerland is one of more than 20 countries that signed up to the US State Department’s Best Practices for Restitution of Nazi-Confiscated Art in March. 

Stuart Eizenstat, the US secretary of State's special advisor on Holocaust issues, said the guidance sought to address "over 100,000 of the 600,000 paintings and many more of the millions of books, manuscripts, ritual religious items and other cultural objects stolen that have never been returned".

Under existing Swiss law, descendants seeking to recover artworks from the Bührle collection have no legal claims for restitution or compensation due to statutes of limitations.

The Emil Buhrle Collection board said it is "committed to seeking a fair and equitable solution for these works with the legal successors of the former owners, following best practices".

Culture Recovery Fund: ACE investigating four cases of possible fraud

People wearing face masks looking at art
30 May 2024

Emergence of ongoing investigations coincides with fresh scrutiny of a £480,000 grant administered by ACE in 2021 to a Manchester-based firm. 

FBI investigates missing British Museum artefacts

28 May 2024

The FBI is investigating the whereabouts of hundreds of artefacts missing from the British Museum.

Some of the missing ancient gems, jewellery and other items have been traced to the USA. A buyer in New Orleans, who is no longer in possession of any items, told the BBC the FBI had been in contact asking for information about two pieces he bought on eBay.

The British Museum says that of 1,500 items estimated to have been stolen or missing, more than 600 have been bought back and a further 100 have been located. According to the BBC’s report, the US law enforcement agency has assisted in returning 268 items that were sold to a collector in Washington DC.

Senior curator Peter Higgs, has been accused by the museum of stealing, damaging and selling ancient artefacts. A court case is currently ongoing. Higgs, who has been dismissed from his role at the museum, denies the allegations.

The BBC’s latest investigation suggests artefacts could have also been sold in other countries. Danish antiquities dealer Ittai Gradel, who first alerted the museum to thefts, has tracked down artefacts that were sold to buyers in Hamburg, Cologne, Paris and Hong Kong.

British Museum locates further stolen items

21 May 2024

The British Museum has found a further 268 items that went missing or were stolen from its storerooms.

The Guardian reports that the latest batch of recovered items brings the total to 626. George Osborne, the museum’s Chair, said the number of items recovered so far was a “remarkable result”.

“Few expected to see this day, and even I had my doubts," he 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,” he said.

“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.”

Around 2,000 items were found last year to be missing or lost, some of which had been sold on eBay.

Two women charged over Magna Carta protest

13 May 2024

Two women in their 80s have been charged with criminal damage after the glass around the Magna Carta at the British Library was attacked, the Metropolitan Police have said.

The Guardian reports that the Rev Sue Parfitt, 82, from Bristol, and Judith Bruce, 85, from Swansea, were arrested last Friday morning (10 May).

The British Library said its security team intervened to prevent further damage to the case, and the “Magna Carta itself remains undamaged”.

The gallery housing the display is closed until further notice, it added.

The two women have been released on bail and are due to appear at Westminster Magistrates Court on 20 June.

ArtsEd delays misconduct report

01 May 2024

London drama school ArtsEd has revealed it will delay publishing a public statement and summary of conclusions from an investigation into alleged misconduct by its senior leadership team.

The school's Acting Chair, Farida Mannan, said that although an update had been due on 30 April, it would now be deferred until 28 June.

Earlier this year, the board appointed barrister Ghazaleh Rezaie to independently investigate allegations of misconduct and bullying made against Principal Julie Spencer.

Spencer herself was appointed in 2022 after a previous independent review led to the resignation of former principal Chris Hocking.

The 2021 barrister-led investigation found that ArtsEd had a “sexualized environment” and demonstrated a “lack of regard” for the wellbeing of students, exposing them to favouritism, bullying and other misconduct.

Recent allegations against Spencer were made by students, alumni and former staff in Deadline and described a “toxic” and unsafe culture. ArtsEd has strongly disputed the claims.

In February, an employment tribunal heard a former staff member describe a “culture of fear” at ArtsEd and express unease about Spencer and her deputy, Yewande Akindele's leadership.

Spencer is currently on medical leave but has denied the allegations against her.

Let's get smart about paying artists

Image of 'stoned fox'
26 Apr 2024

To mark World Intellectual Property Day, Adele Morse thinks it’s time the UK caught up with other countries in paying its artists fairly. 

Legal issue prevents council from selling artworks

22 Apr 2024

Middlesborough Council has decided against selling artwork from its £32.5m collection to help avoid bankruptcy after research into the legalities of the process concluded it could result in the "threat of significant legal challenges".

Director of Regeneration Richard Horniman said it could also affect future grant funding for the town.

Horniman told councillors: “Following some joint work between ourselves and Mima (Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art), it is clear that the ownership of the artworks is legally open to interpretation and therefore a challenge.

"For example, the LS Lowry painting was donated by the artist to the council for the people of Middlesbrough."

“The council technically own [the Lowry painting] but wouldn’t be able to try and sell it without the threat of significant legal challenge.

"Recent examples have shown it is very easy to prevent such sales and cause huge reputational damage in the process.”

Middlesbrough Council is one of at least 19 local authorities to receive exceptional financial support from the government, to help it avoid effective bankruptcy.

A spokesperson for ACE told the BBC that although they understood the financial difficulties faced by local authorities, selling off art should not be used to cover short-term gaps in funding as it would “erode the long-held and hard-won trust that the public have in museums and will cause irreversible damage to the UK’s cultural inheritance.”

Men to be allowed to visit 'women-only' exhibit

10 Apr 2024

An exhibit at a Tasmanian museum must allow men admission following a court ruling in a gender discrimination case.

The Ladies Lounge at Tasmania's Museum of Old and New Art (Mona) has been open since 2020 and houses some of the museum's most acclaimed works.

Playing on the concept of Australian pubs, which were historically male-only spaces, the exhibit only offers women admittance. 

After being turned away from the exhibit last April, Jason Lau, a New South Wales resident, filed a gender discrimination lawsuit.

Representing himself, Lau argued the museum violates the state's anti-discrimination act by failing to provide "a fair provision of goods and services in line with the law" to ticket holders who don’t identify as female.

The museum defended its position, saying Lau's feeling of rejection was part of the artwork and that Tasmanian law permits discrimination "designed to promote equal opportunity" for historically disadvantaged people.

In his ruling, Judge Richard Grueber said it was not apparent how preventing men from seeing the artwork artworks achieved that goal.

Following the verdict, "persons who do not identify as ladies" will be allowed to access the exhibit in 28 days.  

A spokesperson for Mona has previously said the artwork would be "untenable" if the ruling was not in their favour. 

The representative said: "We are deeply disappointed by this decision," adding that the Mona would now consider its options.

British Museum sues former curator over collection thefts

26 Mar 2024

The British Museum is suing a former curator of Greek and Roman Art, alleging that they stole or damaged more than 2,000, mainly unregistered, artefacts from its collection. 

The museum’s lawyer, Daniel Burgess, said Higgs, who was fired in 2023, “abused his position of trust” and took the items, including ancient gems and gold jewellery, over a 10-year period, according to the Associated Press.

Burgess alleged that Higgs tried to conceal his activities by using fake names and documents, manipulating museum records and undervaluing items when he resold them.

Higgs, who has not yet been charged in a separate ongoing police investigation, denies the allegations. He did not attend a hearing on March 26 because of poor health, but Associated Press reports that he intends to dispute the British Museum’s claim.

The museum has said 351 stolen items have been returned, with 300 further missing items identified.

Orders from High Court judge Heather Williams require Higgs to list or return any items from the museum still in his possession within four weeks and to disclose his records from eBay and PayPal.

The theft of around 1,500 Greek and Roman objects by a British Museum employee between 1993 and 2022 first emerged in August 2023, causing considerable reputational damage to the organisation and resulting in the resignations of Director Hartwig Fischer and Deputy Director Jonathan Williams.

An independent review into thefts has made a series of recommendations to the museum on risk management, auditing, governance and security, as well as introducing a comprehensive register of all eight million items in its collections.

English Heritage trials body-worn cameras to prevent crime

25 Mar 2024

English Heritage is trialling the use of visible body-worn cameras on its staff at four locations in an attempt to discourage antisocial behaviour and crime.

Used at Wrest Park in Bedfordshire, Tilbury Fort in Essex, Kenwood House in north London and Marble Hill in south London, English Heritage says that footage is being recorded "on the basis of our legitimate interest in deterring and detecting crime".

"Experience of these cameras has shown that they are useful at helping defuse confrontational situations and provide a reliable version of events, which can help us to clarify any dispute or serve as evidence in the event it is believed a crime has been committed."

The move follows the recent publication of research commissioned by Historic England and the National Police Chiefs' Council that examined heritage and cultural property crime in England.

The report highlighted problems, including the theft of historic lead and stone, burglaries targeting cultural objects, unlawful metal detecting, and the removal of artefacts from protected wreck sites. It also found issues with antisocial behaviour, including arson, vandalism, and graffiti, recommending a "more effective prevention and active enforcement of heritage crime".

Police investigate vandalism of portrait by activists

13 Mar 2024

Police are investigating an incident of vandalism at Cambridge University which saw two pro-Palestine protesters spray paint on then slash a portrait of former Conservative Prime Minister and Foreign Secretary Arthur Balfour.

On 8 March the group Palestine Action posted a video online of an unidentified person defacing the 1914 painting, which was on display at Trinity College.

Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College, said in a statement: “I am shocked by [the] attack in our college on our painting. I condemn this act of vandalism. We are cooperating with the police to bring the perpetrators to justice.”

Palestine Action said in an online statement: “Arthur Balfour, then UK Foreign Secretary, issued a declaration [in 1917] which promised to build ‘a national home for the Jewish people’ in Palestine, where the majority of the indigenous population were not Jewish.

"He gave away the Palestinians’ homeland – a land that wasn’t his to give away. Britain’s support for the continued colonisation of Palestine hasn’t wavered since 1917.”

Others have interpreted Balfour's declaration differently. The full declaration states that "nothing shall be done which may prejudice the civil and religious rights of existing non-Jewish communities in Palestine”.

AI chatbot aims to make your workplace safer

Image of Co-founders of the SaferSpace chatbot
06 Mar 2024

Ruth Sparkes is co-founder of SaferSpace, a tech-for-good company trying to address unacceptable behaviour in the workplace. To mark International Women's Day, she has released a free AI chatbot.

EXCLUSIVE: ACE seeks costs over failed race discrimination case

Speech Debelle, real name Corynne Elliot, performing at a music concert
29 Feb 2024

Arts Council England is pursuing Mercury Prize winning musician Speech Debelle for around £100,000 in legal costs.

National museums excluded from restitution law

14 Feb 2024

A law that would have allowed the restitution of artefacts on moral grounds will not apply to national museums and galleries, the government has confirmed.

Currently, most national cultural collections in England are prohibited from deaccessioning items. However, sections 15 and 16 of the Charities Act 2022 would have allowed trustees to request permission from the Charity Commission if they felt there were moral grounds to make a voluntary transfer of property.

The government says the bill's potential consequences were not made clear when it was passed by parliament. The relevant section was suspended in 2022 to allow the government more time to consider it.

In January, Arts and Heritage Minister Lord Parkinson wrote to the Charity Commission clarifying the government's position on the bill.

Parkinson said: "The potential consequences of these provisions were not made clear by the Law Commission when the bill was introduced and were not the subject of parliamentary scrutiny or debate during the passage of the bill.

"The policy of HM Government is that national museums and galleries should continue to be bound by their governing legislation, precluding them from resolving to restitute objects from their collections other than in the limited and specific circumstances expressly provided for in legislation.

"To that end, we will specifically exclude those national museums and galleries from the commencement of sections 15 and 16 of the act."

When the full act comes into force later this year, non-national organisations will be able to make smaller restitutions without consulting the Charity Commission, except where the recipient is located outside the UK.

Former ArtsEd teacher launches unfair dismissal claim

ArtsEd building exterior
14 Feb 2024

A tribunal has heard that a former teacher at ArtsEd claimed there was a “culture of fear” at the school and raised concerns over leadership.


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