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.

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.

Speakers cancel RSA events after union calls for boycott

13 Feb 2024

Internationally renowned speakers have withdrawn from engagements at the Royal Society of the Arts (RSA) after members of the Independent Workers of Great Britain (IWGB) called for a boycott of the institution in a dispute over pay and concerns about leadership.

Staff at the RSA, who went on strike in December, are calling on fellows, guest speakers, academics and the public not to attend or speak at events organised by or at the RSA. They are also asking members to withhold nominations for new fellows and for academics to abstain from participating in research projects with the RSA.

Economist Yanis Varoufakis cancelled an event at RSA on 15 February in response to the campaign. He wrote on X: “It's our hope that this boycott will help the [RSA union] to ensure that the RSA, with its historically progressive aims, offers fair pay and conditions for all staff.”

Wildlife TV presenter and conservationist Chris Packham and comedian and writer Deborah Frances-White also withdrew from engagements at the RSA.

Employees have been in talks with RSA management for six months about a pay claim submitted in January 2023. Staff want a flat £2,800 salary increase for all employees, an increase from 5.5% to 8% for pension contributions and a £400 allowance for staff who don’t benefit from hybrid working.

The union has also accused the organisation of "curtailing free speech and debate through censorship and anti-democratic decisions" and is calling for an independent review of "the suitability of the leadership of the RSA". 

An RSA spokesperson said they were disappointed by the boycott and added that the body has worked with the IWGB to find “constructive resolutions,” offering a £1,000 salary increase, which the union has rejected.

In October 2023, an employment tribunal found the RSA had unfairly dismissed an employee who spoke to the press about the organisation's refusal to recognise the staff trade union. The IWGB said the victory "has only strengthened our members’ resolve to win the ongoing pay dispute and has given them confidence and energy to transform the RSA into an organisation that respects and values their work.”

We need a global standard to protect artists’ rights

Image of artwork in two panels
06 Feb 2024

The results of a recent survey on AI and artists’ work reveal serious anxieties. Artist Adelaide Damoah calls on government to act to safeguard artists’ rights.

Actors’ charity reports voter fraud claims to police

01 Feb 2024

Police are investigating alleged electoral fraud at the Actors Benevolent Fund (ABF) following suspicions of voter irregularity at its board elections.

After completing an internal investigation, ABF said that it had disregarded 156 online votes cast during its January board elections when it emerged they had originated from only two digital mailboxes.

“This accounts for over 50% of online votes coming from just two IP addresses. It appears a crime may have been committed, and so this matter has been reported to the police and the Charity Commission,” it said in a statement.

ABF said it had “substantial reason” to doubt the votes’ veracity after some members confirmed they had not cast or approved the online votes made in their name. However, some critics questioned the robustness of the charity’s investigation, carried out by its own lawyers.

The charity, which has around £40m in assets and operates hardship funds to support actors and stagehands in England and Wales, has been embroiled in a leadership row since 2022 after a group of 10 trustees led by former ABF President for 32 years Dame Penelope Keith was ousted from the board.

A spokesperson for the Charity Commission, which has faced criticisms for permitting the 2022 board takeover, said: “The ABF has been subject to a long and damaging dispute, which has not served the interests of the charity or its beneficiaries.

"The commission had required that the charity hold free and fair trustee elections by the end of January, and we hope that, following the outcome announced today, the charity can now move forward in unity in delivering on its important charitable purpose.”

A spokesperson for former ABF trustees, members, and donors said: “We trust that the newly elected ABF council will seek to unify the membership and heal past divisions. We are sure that with the support of the hugely experienced and independent co-opted trustees, the council will ensure that the charity is in safe hands.”

After invalidating the suspected fraudulent votes, ABF said that 12 candidates endorsed by its nominations committee, including Simon Callow, Lesley Joseph, Rob Rinder, and President Eshwar Alladi, had been elected to the board.

Meanwhile, Miriam Margolyes and Robert Bathurst were among the six who failed to become board members due to the recount.

The ABF said: “These candidates will form our new board, and our priority now is to focus on the core purpose of the charity, which is to support the acting and stage management community in need.”

Arnolfini apologises for pulling Palestinian film event

Exterior of Arnolfini on Bristol's harbourside
16 Jan 2024

Arnolfini says it is now working to 'rebuild relationships' with artists, partners and sector organisations following a significant backlash against its decision to cancel the events.

MPs warn of 'lack of definitive plan' to counter AI risks

Man produce electronic music in studio stock photo
11 Jan 2024

Government says it is prioritising the development of a regulatory framework for AI technologies that will promote innovation while responding to risks.

Scottish arts organisations facing financial distress

High Street Edinburgh during the Fringe festival
10 Jan 2024

Fiona McKerrellCarissa Najafian and Kirsty Fryer are lawyers with extensive experience of working with organisations facing financial challenges. Here they share top tips for weathering the current storm.

Peers support return of Parthenon sculptures

19 Dec 2023

Former Brexit negotiator is among those calling for artefacts to be returned, arguing it should be on the condition of a new cultural partnership between the UK and Greece. 

ACE facing two further employment tribunals

Arts Council England offices in Manchester
06 Dec 2023

Funder has already faced two employment tribunals this year, one of which was dismissed with the other partially upheld.

Coventry Culture Trust: Potential misconduct identified

Coventry City of Culture Trust had total income of around £45m
30 Nov 2023

Administrators submit report identifying potential misconduct at Coventry City of Culture Trust while investigations into the circumstances of the collapse continue. 

Sunak snubs Greek PM over Parthenon sculptures claim

Elgin Parthenon Marbles
28 Nov 2023

Greek Prime Minister has been calling for the return of the entire Parthenon frieze to Athens since taking office five years ago.

Street performers march on Westminster City Hall

Street performers walking along a street to deliver a petition
27 Nov 2023

Petition with more than 5,000 signatures delivered to Westminster Council's Leader in bid to 'save Covent Garden street performers'.


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