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.

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'.

Arnolfini pulls Palestinian film over ‘political activity' concerns

Arnolfini Centre for Contemporary Arts in Bristol, September 2016:
23 Nov 2023

Bristol's Arnolfini gallery said it "could not be confident the event would not stray into political activity", which would be at odds with its remit as a charitable organisation.

RSA unfairly sacked employee over union claims

09 Nov 2023

The Royal Society of Arts (RSA) unfairly dismissed an employee who spoke to the press about the organisation's refusal to recognise the staff trade union, an employment tribunal has found.

In a ruling delivered last month, which has been recently published, a judge found that Ruth Hannon had been unfairly dismissed by the RSA on grounds related to her trade union membership and was awarded her £6,959 in compensation.

Hannon was let go from her contract at RSA the day after she was quoted in The Obervor of accusing the RSA of hypocrisy because it had repeatedly refused to recognise the Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB), which almost half its staff had joined.

In the article, the former Head of Policy and Participation at RSA noted that contrary to its stance within its organisation, RSA had publicly praised IWGB and given them an award for unionising workers in the gig economy.

Her termination letter, which ended her employment a week early, claimed Hannon had made “unauthorised, misleading and potentially damaging statements”. An active member of IWGB, Hannon brought a claim against RSA for detriment for engaging in trade union activity.

IWG members at the RSA staged strike action in September after rejecting a £1,000 pay rise for all staff.

The IWGB said: “Ruth’s legal 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.”

In a statement to Morning Star, an RSA spokesperson said: “We respect, but are extremely disappointed, by the tribunal’s judgment given the facts of this case and we reserve our right to appeal it."

Does AI image generation infringe artists' copyright?

06 Nov 2023

Artists are increasingly concerned that generative AI is stealing their copyright. Lawyers Patrick Wheeler and Zoë Deckker consider whether existing law provides creators adequate protection against the rise of AI-generated artworks.

Judge exonerates ACE over race discrimination claim

Employment tribunal documents, notepad and glasses
17 Oct 2023

Employment tribunal finds no grounds for claims by former Relationship Manager that she was harassed and persecuted by colleagues over the course of her employment. 

Museum Wales pay off 'may have breached law'

Exterior view of Cardiff's National Museum
16 Oct 2023

Auditor says a £325,698 settlement with former Director General may have breached the requirements of charity law.

Museum alters trans exhibit amid defamation concerns

The front entrance of Weston Museum
16 Oct 2023

Weston Museum said it removed the wording from an exhibition on trans issues after concerns were raised that it could be perceived as defamatory.

NFTs have led to widespread copyright infringements

11 Oct 2023

The Culture, Media and Sport (CMS) Committee has urged government to work with non-fungible token (NFT) marketplaces to address the scale of copyright infringement in the art world.

In the committee’s latest report, NFTs and the Blockchain: the risks to sport and culture, published today (11 October), the cross-party group of MPs note that, while NFT sales may have peaked last year, their emergence has led to the risk of widespread copyright infringement.

The report explains creators' rights have been infringed in cases where work has been made available as an NFT without permission. 

The process of having copied work taken down has proved time consuming and difficult for artists, compared with the ease with which NFTs can be minted.

In the report, the committee recommends government engages with NFT marketplaces to address the scale of infringement and enable copyright holders to enforce their rights.

It says government should work to introduce a code of conduct for online marketplaces operating in the UK - including NFT marketplaces - that protects creators, consumers and sellers.

CMS Committee Chair Caroline Dinenage said: “Traditional regulatory regimes have failed to protect both creatives and consumers caught up in the volatile new crypto world.

“Artists are at risk of seeing the fruits of their hard work pinched and promoted without permission while fraudulent and misleading adverts add an extra layer of jeopardy for investors involved in what is already an inherently risky business,” she explained.

“The government must make sure that everyone in the crypto chain is working to properly protect consumers and the rights of creators.”

The committee’s report also highlights NFTs and blockchains as having unique potential applications in arts and culture, such as encouraging artists to develop digital skills or creating new markets for artworks.

British Museum launches webpage to recover stolen objects

28 Sep 2023

The British Museum has announced the launch of a webpage that aims to help recover some of the almost 2,000 antiquities that have been stolen from its collection over the past seven years.

The webpage does not record the exact details of individual stolen items. Instead, it describes “the types of objects that are missing” and displays illustrative photographs, so that the public will be better able to identify whether they have come into contact with items, the Art Newspaper reported.

The museum has so far recovered 60 items. A further 300 have been identified and are “due to be returned imminently”, it said it a statement. It did not give details about the items that have been recovered and identified so far. 

Around 1,600 objects from the Greek and Roman departments have yet to be tracked down, including gold jewellery and gems made from semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th Century BC and later. 

The museum has not disclosed how many of these artefacts have been identified. Records of some objects are reported to have been incomplete.

A spokesperson for the Art Loss Register, which is assisting the museum with its recovery operation, told the Art Newspaper that the museum has chosen not to reveal the exact details of items that remain missing because it might “enable those who are holding such pieces and are acting in bad faith to avoid detection”.

This might result in artefacts being sold “through channels where fewer questions are asked” or even being destroyed, the spokesperson said.

Experts from Art Loss Register are part of an international panel of 14 leading specialists assembled by the museum to aid in the identification and recovery of the lost artefacts.

The museum is also working with the Metropolitan Police and is actively monitoring the art market, including online.

Theatre productions paused amid fears of tax law changes

A performance of a pantomime. A man dressed as a pirate lies on the floor with a woman in a tutu dancing beside him
28 Sep 2023

Government says it wants to make changes to legislation around cultural tax reliefs to "provide clarity to the industry," but there are concerns the move could be damaging to the theatre industry.

Trans inclusion guidance for museums is high risk

graphic of different genders
25 Sep 2023

Earlier this month, the University of Leicester published guidance on trans-inclusive practice for museums. Denise Fahmy and Audrey Ludwig say it is, at best, misleading and may be discriminatory.

ACE reaches settlement over harassment case

21 Sep 2023

Arts Council England (ACE) has confirmed that it has reached a settlement with a former member of staff whose claim of being harassed in the workplace over her gender critical views was upheld by an employment tribunal.

Denise Fahmy raised claims of harassment and victimisation against ACE after questioning during an internal meeting held in April 2022 why a grant to the LGB Alliance had been withdrawn.

In June an employment tribunal upheld her claim of harassment while dismissing the claim of victimisation.

ACE has said that an agreement has now been reached which resolves the case.

An ACE spokesperson said: "We respect the findings of the judgment and are sorry that despite the actions we took at the time, a member of our team experienced harassment at work. 

"We are committed to making sure that similar instances do not happen again, and that we are an organisation where every staff member, no matter who they are, or what beliefs they hold, is treated with dignity and respect, and ultimately feel they belong." 

In a statement posted on her Crowd Justice web page, which she used to raise funds towards the legal costs of the claim, Fahmy said: "Many people working in the arts are deeply affected by the intolerance within the sector. 

"I hope my case has helped shine a light on that. I will continue to fight for freedom of expression in the arts."

Brand allegations: Bectu urges regulator action

Russell Brand in a crowd of people
19 Sep 2023

Union calls for broadcasters to fund setting up of new creative sector regulatory body to support people suffering abuse, harassment or bullying.

Brixton Academy: £1.2m spent on safety improvements

13 Sep 2023

Operator promises improved safety measures if venue is permitted to reopen and rejects concerns a new risk assessment process would become a “proxy for racial discrimination”.

Museum closes on safety grounds during 'gender critical' event

People's History Museum, Manchester
13 Sep 2023

Trans rights activists demonstrated outside a museum where a gender critical group was meeting, with police in attendance.

Conductor accused of bullying claims unfair dismissal

Exterior of National Opera Studio, London.
07 Sep 2023

National Opera Studio's former Head of Music claims investigation into his behaviour was conducted to 'manufacture a purportedly fair reason for dismissal'.

Arts organisations 'increasingly anxious on trans issues'

White transgender symbol on the background of many pink and blue gender symbols. The colours of the transgender flag. 3D illustration via iStock.
07 Sep 2023

Detailed guidance providing arts organisations with clarity on the law relating to trans issues, and advice on how to deal with disagreements, is published.

London drama school investigated by charity regulator

29 Aug 2023

Watchdog escalates inquiry into Kogan Academy of Dramatic Arts as accounts for three financial years remain outstanding.

'More than 1,500' artefacts stolen from British Museum

23 Aug 2023

The number of items allegedly taken from the British Museum’s collection by senior curator Peter Higgs is thought to exceed 1,500 and be worth tens of millions of pounds, according to an internal investigation launched this month.

Higgs was the museum’s curator of Greek collections, Greek sculpture and the Hellenistic period and was named last week by the Daily Telegraph and The Times as the prime suspect in the disappearance of artefacts from the collection.

He is thought to have sold many of the stolen objects on eBay over several years, beginning in 2016, often for fractions of their estimated value, the Art Newspaper reported.

A 2,000-year-old Roman object valued at £50,000 was allegedly sold for £40.

Higgs was dismissed by the museum earlier this year. He has not been arrested but the Metropolitan Police have confirmed they are investigating.

Christos Tsirogiannis, a UNESCO-affiliated expert in antiques trafficking, told The Economist the theft is “probably the worst case so far”. 

“No one expects that to happen in a museum”, he said.

The investigation comes at a time of fierce debate about the restitution of artefacts. The British Museum has long countered restitution claims by arguing it has a unique ability to conserve and preserve artefacts, pledging on its website “to ensure that the collection is housed in safety, conserved, curated, researched and exhibited”.

The controversy over the stolen items has led to Greek culture minister, Lina Mendoni, questioning the credibility of the museum: “When such incidents occur, there is obviously a question of safety and integrity [around] all of the museum's exhibits”.

She added the furore “reinforces the permanent and just demand of our country for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum in Athens”.

Her comments were echoed by head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, Despina Koutsoumba, who told The Independent her colleagues were “worried” about how many Greek items are missing from the museum.

Their comments were rebuked by Conservative MP Tim Loughton, who is Chair of the British Museum All-Party Parliamentary Group. He told the BBC Radio 4 Today programme the “blatant opportunism of the Greeks” was “particularly damaging”.

Meanwhile, a museum spokesperson has said: “We won't be commenting on any details of the thefts while they're subject to a police investigation”.


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