In 2020, suspicions arose for Danish antiquities dealer Dr. Ittai Gradel regarding an eBay seller from whom he frequently purchased, suspecting theft from the British Museum. More than two years later, the museum confirmed the loss of thousands of objects from its collection, vindicating Dr. Gradel’s concerns. But why did it take so long for the museum to acknowledge this?

The Initial Clue

Dr. Gradel, a connoisseur of ancient gemstones, noticed a peculiar listing on eBay in August 2016. A cameo featuring Priapus, the Greek god of fertility, appeared for sale at a meager price of £40 under the username “sultan1966.” Recognizing it from a gems catalogue, he grew suspicious. Dr. Gradel had been purchasing gemstones from this seller for years, under the guise of Paul Higgins, who claimed to have inherited the treasures from his grandfather. However, this time, Dr. Gradel sensed deception.

The museum later revealed in court documents that the cameo had been taken from its storeroom by Dr. Peter Higgs, a senior curator, just a week before its eBay appearance. Dr. Higgs, initially hired as a research assistant in 1993, was described as introverted and lived an ordinary life in Hastings.

Despite Dr. Higgs’ attempts to remove the cameo’s catalogue entry and return it to the museum, suspicions lingered. Dr. Gradel, with his sharp memory and attention to detail, began unraveling a web of deceit.

The Second Clue

In May 2020, Dr. Gradel stumbled upon an image resembling Roman Emperor Augustus in a newly published book. Labeled as a British Museum artifact, Dr. Gradel compared it to a gem previously offered by a British dealer named Malcolm Hay. Alarmed by the similarity, Dr. Gradel shared his concerns with Hay, initiating a chain of revelations.

Hay, having acquired the gem from eBay, disclosed that the seller was none other than sultan1966. Dr. Gradel delved deeper, meticulously examining years of transactions, ultimately uncovering the seller’s true identity as Peter Higgs, the curator at the British Museum.

Connecting the dots, Dr. Gradel uncovered Higgs’ Twitter handle and birth year within the username. Furthermore, an eBay receipt led to Higgs’ private address, solidifying suspicions of internal theft.

The Unraveling

As Dr. Gradel pieced together evidence, Higgs continued his activities at the museum, even earning a promotion to acting department head. Despite Dr. Gradel’s efforts to alert museum management, his concerns were met with dismissal.

However, a routine spot-check later revealed alarming discrepancies within the Greece and Rome department, leading to a clandestine investigation. Over 300 registered items, along with unregistered artifacts, were found missing or damaged, some bearing telltale signs of tampering.

Subsequent raids on Higgs’ workspace and home yielded incriminating evidence, including handwritten notes and museum artifacts. Higgs, dismissed from the museum in July 2023, remains under investigation by the police.

Despite the ordeal, Dr. Gradel’s commitment to rectify the situation remains steadfast. He has returned over 360 gemstones to the museum, urging others to follow suit.

As the investigation unfolds, the British Museum faces challenges of cataloging and reclaiming its lost treasures. Dr. Gradel’s actions, though belatedly acknowledged, have catalyzed reforms within the institution, ensuring such breaches of trust are never repeated.