FBI Probes Sale of Stolen Greek and Roman Treasures from British Museum in the US

Parthenon Marbles British Museum

The FBI is investigating the sale of hundreds of treasures to US buyers, suspected of being looted from the British Museum. The investigation has revealed troubling details about the extent of the thefts.

A New Orleans antiquities buyer revealed to the BBC that an FBI investigator contacted him regarding two pieces he had purchased from an eBay seller using the alias sultan1966. The agent, working with the Metropolitan Police, is probing these transactions.

Last year, Dr. Peter Higgs, a senior curator in the museum's Greece and Rome department, was dismissed after an investigation revealed that 1,500 items had been stolen or damaged. The museum alleges that Dr. Higgs stole, damaged, melted down, or sold these items, profiting approximately £100,000. They are now pursuing a civil case against him. Dr. Higgs, 56, from Hastings, East Sussex, denies these allegations.

According to court documents seen by the BBC, the thefts spanned at least a decade, with Dr. Higgs allegedly selling mostly unregistered items from the museum's storerooms.

Tonio Birbiglia, the New Orleans buyer, was shocked when the FBI contacted him about an amethyst gem depicting Cupid riding a dolphin, which he bought for £42 in 2016. The agent also inquired about an orange scarab-beetle gem he purchased for £170. Payments for these items were sent to a PayPal account registered under Dr. Higgs' personal email address. Birbiglia no longer possesses the items and stated that neither the FBI nor British police followed up extensively with him.

The British Museum has yet to examine these items to confirm if they belong to its collection. The FBI has also assisted in the return of 268 items sold to a collector in Washington DC, claimed by the museum.

Dr. Ittai Gradel, a Danish antiquities expert, raised concerns about potential thefts two years prior, but initial investigations were inadequate. Gradel suspected parts of the collection were being sold online since 2016, when he noticed a cameo gemstone depicting Priapus, listed briefly on eBay by the sultan1966 account. He recognized it from an old British Museum catalogue. Monitoring the eBay account, Gradel established it belonged to Dr. Higgs, who used the name Paul Higgins. According to court documents, Dr. Higgs admitted to owning the sultan1966 account.

No arrests or charges have been made. The British Museum has declined to comment, and the Metropolitan Police confirmed a criminal investigation began in January 2023, following an internal audit. A spokesman stated that a man was interviewed under caution on August 23, 2023, but further details will not be provided as inquiries continue.

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