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May 2024

Vol. 166 / No. 1454


The British Museum has recently mounted a small and rather underwhelming display about Graeco-Roman gems. This fascinating, although esoteric subject, would not normally attract large numbers of visitors. However, the display seems to have drawn a significant amount of attention. This must, in part at least, be because it has been used to exhibit a few recently recovered gems, which come from the group of about 2,000 objects, the loss of which was announced in a dramatic fashion last year, as part of a sequence of events that have had such a corrosive impact on the museum’s status. 

As well as signalling partial recovery and being an example of ‘reputation management’, the display prompts questions about how museums and galleries cope with and respond to devastating events such as theft. They can of course be deeply distressing for staff and the communities the museums serve. In spite of public curiosity there is a world of difference between the romantic perception of fictional ‘gentlemen thieves’, such as Raffles or Thomas Crown or Lupin, and the grubby, upsetting reality of admired and sometimes financially very valuable works of art being stolen and historic collections broken up. Colleagues will need to be supported, security and management of a collection reviewed, the loss to scholarship and displays assessed and confidence rebuilt. 

The British Museum has, as well as mounting its display, recently published the recommendations made by the independent review it commissioned into its thefts.[1] The report on what occurred has not been made public but the connected recommendations, which are being implemented, indicate what can reasonably be assumed to have been a wide-ranging and in-depth internal investigation. Thirty-six actions are listed. Seven cover the registration of objects and the control of them; six concern the defining and management of risk; seven more apply to the policies of auditing; twelve tighten oversight by the Board of Trustees; and the remaining four, the role of management. Collectively they are a very important step forward; however, they also indicate what must have been profound systemic failings, which it was evidently relatively easy to take audacious advantage of. Internal reviews under such circumstances, running in tandem with criminal investigations led by the police and other agencies, are clearly essential. 

There are also other strategies that have been adopted by museums in the wake of thefts, especially when larger objects, such as paintings or sculptures, are involved. These invariably involve maintaining visibility and keeping the lost works in the public eye by proxy, for example, through defiantly continuing to catalogue stolen works as though they were not absent and in anticipation of their return. The Pisan Virgin and Child with Two Angels (early 1260s; National Gallery, London), which was stolen in the 1970 and remains missing was included in Dillian Gordon’s catalogue of the Gallery’s early Italian paintings (2011); while Cezanne’s painting Auvers-sur-Oise (1879–80; Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), which was taken on new year’s day 2000 and has not been recovered appeared in Jon Whiteley’s catalogue of the Museum’s French paintings (2022). 

Reminders about thefts on the anniversary of the event have also been employed in attempts to garner publicity, jog memories and achieve recovery. The theft of paintings by Annibale Carracci, Anthony Van Dyck and Salvator Rosa on 14th March 2020 from the collection at Christ Church Picture Gallery, Oxford, has been publicised annually since then to draw attention to the loss and hopefully lead to the pictures being returned.[2] In this case the impact of the theft was also highlighted in a bold manner by leaving empty frames on the wall of the gallery. The same tactic was employed in the wake of what was perhaps the most notorious museum theft of modern times, which occurred on 18th March 1990 when thirteen works of art were stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, Boston, including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer and Manet. The Museum left empty frames where the stolen paintings were ‘as placeholders for missing works and symbols of hope’. The desire to solve this crime is undiminished: as the Stewart Gardner website explains, the Museum is still offering a $10 million reward for information that could lead to recovery. 

In addition to employing such headline-grabbing incentives, there are a variety of resources available to those seeking to recover works with less funds at their disposal, including the immensely useful Art Loss Register, a private database, founded in 1990, that currently lists over 700,000 works of art, antiques and collectables that have been stolen, looted or lost. It is an invaluable tool for the art market, just as it is for private and institutional collections that need to check provenances. Other resources include the ICOM (International Council of Museums) Red Lists, which illustrate types of cultural objects at risk and are intended to increase the profile of such items and help curb illegal traffic. Support of a different sort to assist in efforts to recover stolen objects is also provided by other specialist endeavours in the United Kingdom – such the work of the forensic science department at Cranfield University, which has for some years focused on the investigation of art and heritage thefts using non-invasive techniques. 

Much of the news about thefts highlights the loss and the trauma they entail; there are, however, joyous moments of recovery, sometimes many years after the event. In 1994 three paintings – two Turners belonging to Tate and a Friedrich from the Hamburger Kunsthalle – were stolen, when exhibited in Frankfurt. They were recovered in 2002–03 after protracted, covert negotiations. In 2003 Benvenuto Cellini’s Saliera (1543) was stolen from the Kunsthistoriches Museum, Vienna; three years later it was recovered by the Austrian police. More recently a breathless press release issued by the Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam, in 2016 announced the return of two paintings stolen from its collection fourteen years earlier. Italy’s Guardia di Finanza had discovered the Van Goghs in Naples during an investigation into organised crime. Such an incident seems to endorse the widely held supposition that highly valuable art is at least sometimes used as collateral in connection with nefarious activities, rather than being stolen to order by mythic, secret collectors. 

Whatever the motivation, the selfish act of theft from a collection deprives us of pleasure and scholarship and shared histories. Illicit trade in art and antiquities is a global blight and recent events at the British Museum represent a tiny percentage of a much larger challenge. Clearly any initiatives that raise awareness of such incidents, mitigate their distressing effects, and can lead to recovery are to be supported. 

[1] ‘British Museum announces completion of Independent Review’, British Museum press release, 12th December 2023, available at, accessed 9th April 2024. 

[2] As this issue goes to press it has been announced that Christ Church’s Salvator Rosa has been returned, undamaged, to the Gallery.