ATHENS – The argument that the Parthenon Marbles are safer in the British Museum than in Greece has been dismantled by a series of antiquity thefts. The British Museum is now working to repair its reputation, while Greece is closely monitoring the situation.
Culture Minister Lina Mendoni stated that the developments at the museum are being closely observed. She mentioned that the Marbles, which the British claimed were lawfully obtained from a Scottish diplomat who took and sold them, were actually stolen.
Museum Director Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian, who previously remarked that Lord Elgin’s actions in taking the marbles with the permission of the Ottoman Empire, despite the Empire not owning them, constituted a “creative act,” is resigning due to the ongoing debacle. This decision follows his and museum officials’ insistence that his resignation is unrelated to the theft of around 2,000 antiquities. Additionally, a curator named Peter Higgs was dismissed but not prosecuted in connection to this.
“It is clear that the British Museum did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in light of the warnings in 2021 and the now fully emerged problem,” Fischer stated. “The ultimate responsibility for this failure must rest with the director.”
Fischer’s announcement also included an apology to whistleblower Ittai Gradel, a British-Danish art historian and dealer. Gradel had reported seeing stolen antiquities for sale on eBay at a fraction of their value, but his concerns were dismissed by the museum.
Gradel traced the two items he didn’t purchase back to the museum. Although the object he bought wasn’t listed in the museum’s catalog, he discovered it had been owned by a man who had donated his entire collection to the museum in 1814.
Gradel revealed that he identified the seller through PayPal, and it turned out to be someone from the museum who has since been dismissed. He further noted that 69 other items he purchased from the same person were then implicated due to association.
Gradel supported Fischer’s decision to resign and accepted his apology. However, he also called for Deputy Director Jonathan Williams to resign, as he had assured Gradel that an investigation found no wrongdoing. Whether an investigation took place remains uncertain.
“We want to convey to the British Museum that they can no longer claim that Greek cultural heritage is better protected within its walls,” said Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, in an interview with the BBC.
The missing objects reportedly include gold jewelry and gems dating from the 15th Century BC to the 19th Century AD. Officials have noted that there is no complete inventory of items, and many are stored in an 18th Century basement.
Museum board Chairman George Osborne, who had offered to lend Greece the stolen Parthenon Marbles with the condition of providing collateral in the form of other valuable artifacts, stated, “We are going to rectify what has gone wrong.”
The thefts have significantly damaged the museum’s reputation as a world-class institution. The museum has also faced criticism for displaying items that were stolen from its former colonies through generations of plunder.
(Note: Portions of this report include material from the Associated Press.)