FBI investigates missing ancient treasures from British Museum

FBI investigates missing ancient treasures from British Museum

Katie Razzall, Darin Graham and Larissa Kennelly,BBC News

BBC Man in FBI jacket and in front of the British MuseumBBC

The FBI is investigating the sale of what could be hundreds of treasures from the British Museum to American buyers.

The BBC understands that US law enforcement also helped return 268 items, which the museum says belong to it, and which were sold to a collector in Washington DC.

The British Museum announced last year that ancient gems, jewelry and other items from its collection had gone missing, stolen or damaged.

One buyer, based in New Orleans, told the BBC that an FBI agent sent him an email asking for information about two pieces he bought on eBay.

The FBI agent said he was helping the Metropolitan Police investigate missing or stolen items from the museum.

The buyer said he was no longer in possession of either gemstone and did not believe they had been located by authorities. The FBI did not request further information from him.

Getty Images The portico of the British Museum, LondonGetty Images

The British Museum says 626 objects have been found so far out of an estimated 1,500 stolen or missing.

The British Museum says that of 1,500 objects it estimates to have been stolen or missing, 626 have so far been recovered and a further 100 have been found but have not yet been returned.

The vast majority of objects the museum believes were stolen were not cataloged, and it is still looking for ways to prove they came from its collection. In some cases, this involves collectors agreeing to donate objects to the museum so that staff can evaluate them.

A senior curator, Peter Higgs, is accused by the British Museum of stealing, damaging, melting down and selling ancient objects. He denies the allegations.

The museum said it believed Dr Higgs had pocketed an estimated total of £100,000.

According to court documents in a civil case the museum is bringing against Dr. Higgs, it is estimated that he had been stealing objects for at least a decade, selling mostly unregistered items from the museum’s reserves.

The museum estimates that Dr. Higgs, who was fired, had sold items to at least 45 buyers on eBay.

Dr. Higgs defends the civil suit filed against him.

No one has been arrested or charged with any offense.

Dr Peter Higgs speaking at an event

Dr Peter Higgs denies allegations made against him by British Museum

Three buyers said the seller “sultan1966” introduced himself as “Paul Higgins” or “Paul” on eBay or in emails with them.

According to court documents, the museum claims that Dr. Higgs admitted that the Sultan1966 account belonged to him.

New Orleans buyer Tonio Birbiglia told the BBC he purchased two items from Sultan1966.

We confirmed this by cross-referencing the eBay records mentioned by the FBI with Mr. Birbiglia’s receipts.

The British Museum has not yet examined these objects and has therefore not yet determined whether they belong in its collection.

One was an amethyst depicting Cupid – the Roman god of love – riding a dolphin, which Mr Birbiglia bought for £42 in May 2016.

The other was an orange beetle which he bought for £170. Mr. Birbiglia sent his payment for this article to a PayPal account registered to Dr. Higgs’s personal email address.

Beetle Gem

Mr Birbiglia has since confirmed to the BBC that it was an image of the beetle gem.

Mr. Birbiglia, who worked for an antiques gallery at the time, said he was “completely shocked” when the FBI contacted him. He said he probably bought the gems to resell, adding: “I don’t even remember.”

Mr. Birbiglia told the special agent that he remembered nothing about the gems. He asked the FBI for more information, such as photos, so he could try to identify where they might have ended up.

Neither the FBI agent, nor the museum, nor the British police followed up on him – said Mr. Birbiglia – so the two gems have not yet been found by the authorities.

“It all just seemed like they [the FBI] we blew it up,” he said. “He [the agent] I didn’t try very hard.

The BBC understands that the FBI also assisted in the investigation into 268 items sold in the Washington DC area by the same seller.

A source close to the buyer told the BBC he bought items from sultan1966 on eBay – then dealing directly with the same seller via email – and paid up to £7,000 for them. items. According to the source, the seller used the name “Paul Higgins” during the transactions.

The BBC believes the gemstones have now been handed over to the British Museum, where work is underway to prove their ownership.

But the United States is not the only place where the items sold by the seller may have ended up.

Danish antiquities dealer Dr Ittai Gradel, who first alerted the museum to the thefts, found items that were sold to buyers in several cities, including Hamburg, Cologne, Paris and Hong Kong.

Some of the gemstones that he purchased himself in good faith, then resold to another private collector, ended up being exhibited at the Deutsches Edelsteinmuseum in Idar-Oberstein, Germany. They were loaned to the museum for an exhibition.

One of the gemstones is believed to be a rare head of the Greek hero Hercules dating from the 2nd century, made from obsidian, a type of volcanic glass.

Estimated to be worth several thousand pounds, the gem was one of the award-winning exhibitions and featured as a full-page photograph at the start of the exhibition catalogue.

The Gem of Hercules sold to Gradel is on display in a German museum

In 2017, Dr Ittai Gradel paid £300 for the paper, which was offered in a private deal under the pseudonym used by Dr Higgs – Paul Higgins.

In emails seen by the BBC, the seller told Dr Gradel that the item belonged to his brother who had inherited it from their grandmother.

“I think it’s glass – a very nicely modeled little head, about 3cm high. I don’t know if you’re interested in things like this, but if so, we’re open to offers,” the seller wrote.

The two gems are not catalogued, but the British Museum believes they came from its collection. They have since been returned to the UK and handed over to museum staff.

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