A suspected thief who plundered valuable artifacts from the British Museum in London for 20 years could be a kleptomaniac, a police source told The Times of London.
A curator at the British Museum was recently terminated when it became apparent that valuable artifacts and jewelry were missing from its vaults.
A stolen piece of ancient Roman jewelry made from onyx, worth up to PS50,000, or approximately $63,000, was listed on the online auction site for as little as PS40, or $50, according to British newspaper The Telegraph.
“The suspicion is that we are dealing with a possible case of kleptomania,” the police source said.
The police source stated that there was concern about some items being defaced. For example, they were melted down and their gems taken out before selling them online at a fraction their worth.
“Some of them would have been very, very valuable — tens of thousands of pounds — if it was known they were from the British Museum. The source said The Times that they could not be sold in this way.
Many of the missing objects, which include semi-precious gems and gold coins, were kept in the museum’s basement galleries and were not on public display, the source said.
A source claimed that the removal of the items was possible due to “a lack of proper cataloging”. The Times reports that the museum admitted to not having cataloged many of its artifacts.
In a report by The Times, the British Museum first became aware that some missing artifacts were sold on eBay years before.
The museum last week said they would take legal action against the fired employee and that police were investigating, per The Times.
The fired man, Peter Higgs, who worked as a curator at the museum for over 30 years, has denied wrongdoing.
A former trustee at the museum said that it was a “puzzling” case as curators typically consider themselves custodians of the artifacts they work with and would not steal or deface them.
They added it was a “fascinating thought” that kleptomania could have spurned the thefts.
“I can see that as a realistic possibility,” they told The Times. “You do get curators that inevitably get obsessed [with the items in their departments]. I would certainly be prepared to put a mild bet on that because I can’t see any other explanation.”
Over several decades, as many as 2,000 items from the museum are feared to have gone missing, been stolen, or become damaged, The Times reported.
The British Museum stated, according to The Times: We take any missing objects incredibly serious. Losses are recorded and reported to the trustees on an annual basis.”
British Museum director Hartwig Fischer said he would step down from his role over the scandal, admitting that the museum had not responded “as comprehensively as it should have” after first being alerted to the thefts in 2021.