An art dealer alerted the British Museum to alleged stolen items from the institution in 2021 – but was told “all objects were accounted for”.
Ittai Gradel alleged in February 2021 he had seen items online belonging to the museum, according to correspondence seen by BBC News between Mr Gradel and the museum.
Deputy director Jonathan Williams responded in July 2021 to Mr Gradel, saying “there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing”. Mr Williams added during the correspondence that there had been a “thorough investigation” and that the “collection was protected”.
The museum announced last week that it had sacked a member of staff after treasures were reported “missing, stolen or damaged”.
It is reported the number of stolen artefacts is “close to 2,000” with the total value of missing pieces thought to run into “millions of pounds”.
A spokesperson for the Metropolitan police said: “There is an ongoing investigation. There is no arrest and enquiries continue.”
The missing items are believed to have been taken over a “significant” period of time. Some of them reportedly ended up on eBay, being sold for considerably less than their value. One Roman object, valued at £25,000 to £50,000 by dealers, was apparently offered for just £40 on the online auction site.
The museum has not specified how many items have been stolen or detailed what the missing items are, saying only that they were “small pieces” including “gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD”.
It is believed the museum might never know exactly what has been stolen because of gaps in its inventory.
An eBay spokesperson said it was liaising with the Met and “supporting the investigation into this case”.
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The museum has said none of the treasures had recently been on display and had been kept in a store room primarily for academic research.
Gradel’s emails suggest he became suspicious when he “stumbled” upon a photo of a cast of a Roman cameo fragment that he said had been up for sale and once listed on the British Museum website, but was removed.
In one of several emails he sent as a follow-up, this time to a board trustee, Gradel accuses the director, Hartwig Fischer, and Mr Williams of “sweeping it all under the carpet”.
The British Museum says it will not comment while the police investigation continues.
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