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The director of the British Museum resigned after over 1,500 its objects went missing


The director of the British Museum is out. Hartwig Fischer has resigned in response to a scandal over stolen artifacts. One report estimates that over 1,500 objects have gone missing. Now, Mr. Fischer says the museum, quote, "did not respond as comprehensively as it should have" after uncovering the thefts two years ago. Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper has been following the story and joins us. Mr. Bailey, thanks so much for being with us.

MARTIN BAILEY: It's a pleasure.

SIMON: Do we know what's missing, more or less?

BAILEY: We don't, and that's part of the problem. The British Museum's statement just says that it's gold jewelry and gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century B.C. to the 19th century A.D. Now, other reports have suggested, as you say, that over 1,500 objects may have disappeared, and they would be worth several million pounds. But the fact is that we outside the museum don't know what's lost. And I suspect that even within the museum, it's not quite clear what has gone missing or has been stolen.

SIMON: Some of these items have shown up online for sale.

BAILEY: Exactly. This began when some objects appeared on eBay a few years ago. One just doesn't know what's happened to them. If it's gold, you know, it could have been melted down. And these are objects which are really important.

SIMON: There's an employee named Peter Higgs, who's been dismissed. Do we know if he's connected?

BAILEY: Well, the suggestion - there's a very strong evidence that he is. He is the one who has been dismissed by the museum over this. And his son confirmed his dismissal and said he was innocent. What is strange about this case and what is unusual is that Higgs was actually a very senior figure within the museum. He'd worked at the British Museum for over 30 years in the Greek and Roman department, and he was actually promoted to be acting keeper last year. So the fact he was so senior I think meant that people could hardly believe that he would have done something like this. It's very out of character for a museum curator whose responsibility is to look after the collection to actually steal objects.

SIMON: Who sold them on eBay?

BAILEY: Well, we believe that they came from him.

SIMON: But he operated under a pseudonym, I gather.

BAILEY: Yes. Yes.

SIMON: The British Museum, like a lot of great European museums, has faced calls to return certain artifacts from the countries from which they came. And British Museum, specifically, the Greek government has wanted the return of sculptures from the Parthenon. British Museum leadership and many museums in Europe say, look, they have a good home here. People can see them, and they're well cared for, and they won't disappear. How does that argument look now?

BAILEY: I don't think very much has changed. In the case of the British Museum, there's actually a law which prohibits the museum from deaccessioning, except in two circumstances. One is they're allowed to deaccession Nazi loot, and they're allowed to deaccession human remains. But other than that, they are not able to return objects. So in order to return the marbles to Greece, that would require Parliament to pass a special law, which it could do. The question is what sort of impact Fischer's resignation and the theft news is going to have on the Parthenon dispute. No doubt the Greek culture minister and the Greek authorities will use this as an argument to press for the restitution of the marbles. I think in practice it won't make very much difference, but it will escalate the verbal row, if you like.

SIMON: To make something valuable in an open market like eBay, don't you have to produce some kind of provenance?

BAILEY: Well, this is another disappointing thing. On eBay, these items will have been sold for a pittance. Obviously, if anyone knew they'd come from the British Museum illegally, you couldn't sell them on the open market. You couldn't go to Christie's or Sotheby's or a major dealer and try and sell them. So if you sell them on eBay, you're going to sell them for a tiny proportion of their value. That is most unfortunate. And the people who buy them won't necessarily realize the importance of the object that they have just bought.

SIMON: So they'll, like - just might turn them into cuff links or something.

BAILEY: Indeed, unfortunately.

SIMON: Martin Bailey of The Art Newspaper in London, thanks so much for being with us.

BAILEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.