The FBI is investigating the sale of suspected stolen treasures from the British Museum to American buyers. A former curator is under suspicion.

Last year, the British Museum complained about suspected stolen treasures – now even the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) has gotten involved. As the BBC reports, the US authorities helped repatriate a total of 268 objects that the museum claims are its rightful property. These items were previously sold to a collector in Washington D.C. sold.

In August 2023, the renowned British Museum announced that ancient gemstones, jewelry and other artifacts were missing, stolen or damaged from its collection. Of an estimated 1,500 missing or stolen objects, 626 have been recovered so far. Another 100 have been located but have not yet been repatriated. 

At the center of the investigation is the senior curator Dr. Peter H. According to statements from the museum, he embezzled artefacts worth an estimated 100,000 pounds, the equivalent of 117,000 euros – over a period of at least ten years. So far, however, no one has been arrested or charged with a crime.

The controversy is expanding following statements from three buyers who said a seller introduced himself to them on eBay or via email as “Paul H.” or “Paul.” Tonio Birbiglia of New Orleans confirmed purchasing two items from the same seller. One of them was an amethyst with a depiction of Cupid on a dolphin, which Birbiglia bought in May 2016 for just under 50 euros. The other was an orange scarab gem, for which he sold around 200 euros to a Dr. H.’s personal email address was registered with the PayPal account.

The non-profit organization Spheres of Influence points out the inherent irony of this situation, as the British Museum is notorious for having a large portion of its collection of art theft from colonial times. Some of the British Museum’s most famous artefacts, such as the Benin Bronzes from Nigeria, the Rosetta Stone from Egypt or the Elgin Marbles from Greece, have their origins in another country. A number of countries are demanding the return of these cultural treasures, but the museum has not yet agreed to restitution.

The founding story of the British Museum is inextricably linked to slavery and colonialism. The English doctor Hans Sloane, who greatly enriched himself from the transatlantic slave trade, collected 71,000 objects throughout his life. A clause in his written legacy still forms the basis of the world’s first public museum. 

The discussion about the repatriation of stolen items is more than a question of cultural value. For Spheres of Influence, the core problem with colonial collections like the British Museum is that most artefacts are stored hundreds of kilometers from their places of origin, making them inaccessible to people outside the UK. According to Spheres of Influence, the return of cultural property is a step towards recognizing cultural and historical equality and equality.

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