FBI Investigating Sale of Objects Stolen From British Museum

As over half of the some 2,000 objects stolen from the British Museum collections remain missing, the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) is investigating various sales in the United States that may be connected to the thefts across the pond. A new report from the BBC indicates that the FBI has been assisting London’s Metropolitan Police in the search and recovery of objects the museum claims are missing, pointing to online sales to collectors based in New Orleans, Louisiana, and Washington, DC.

Last summer, the British Museum announced that it had fired an employee accused of stealing gems, jewelry, and glass objects dating from between the 15th century BCE to the 1800s from a museum storeroom, leading Director Hartwig Fischer to step down from his post ahead of his scheduled departure. As revealed in a recent lawsuit, former Senior Curator Peter Higgs, who worked in the museum’s Greek collections department for 30 years, was accused of pocketing various antiquities over the last decade and selling them to collectors on eBay by obfuscating their records and hiding his personal information. Higgs denies the allegations and intends on disputing the claims.

Several hundred objects have since been found, identified, and returned to the museum while over a thousand remain unaccounted for to this day. The breach has prompted the institution to fully digitize its collection of eight million objects and enlist public help to locate the pieces still at large.

The BBC report states that the FBI had a hand in the recovery of 268 additional objects that the museum claims belonged to its collections that had been sold to a collector in Washington, DC, from the eBay account of user sultan1966, which appears to be Higgs’s, according to evidence presented in the museum’s suit against him. The FBI confirmed to the BBC that the user facilitated the object sales to the collector in Washington, DC.

The British Museum declined to comment on the matter when contacted by Hyperallergic, and a spokesperson for the FBI did not immediately respond to inquiries.

Tonio Birbiglia, the New Orleans-based collector, told the BBC that the FBI reached out to him with regard to two gems he purchased from sultan1966 on eBay as well — one of which he paid for via PayPal to Higgs’s personal email address. Birbiglia said he was no longer in possession of the gems and that the FBI did not follow up.

It appears that the antiquities taken from the British Museum’s collections have been scattered across the world, as Danish collector Ittai Gradel initially flagged certain objects sold by sultan1966 on eBay as stolen to the museum in 2021 when he noticed that the PayPal information was listed under Peter Higgs, while the seller signed off any virtual correspondence with “Paul Higgins.”

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