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”.