British Museum Plans Exhibition of Recovered Stolen Gems

Leave it to the British Museum to turn a flagrant instance of theft into an exhibition opportunity. The institution made headlines last summer when news broke that around 2,000 objects in its collection were missing, many allegedly stolen by a longtime staff member suspected of systematically pocketing ancient gems and gold jewelry from the museum’s store rooms. The museum has since recovered “hundreds” of these artifacts, some of which had even ended up on eBay, and will now showcase 10 of them in an exhibition aptly titled Rediscovering Gems, opening February 15.

In the months following the British Museum’s revelations, Director Hartwig Fischer resigned ahead of his scheduled departure, and the institution promised to digitize its vast collection and launched a stolen object website meant to aid its recovery efforts. The London museum holds 8 million objects, but only around 80,000 works are on view, meaning that most artifacts in the museum’s care are relegated to storage.

Intaglio with profile bust of Minerva or Athena in black glass with white band Roman 1st c. BC 1st c. AD. 20235006.34 1
“Intaglio with profile bust of Minerva or Athena in black glass with white band” (1st century BCE or 1st century CE), Roman (© The Trustees of the British Museum)

While the majority of the stolen works remain at large, the museum is paying long overdue attention to those returned, noting in its exhibition announcement that the robberies “sparked a renewed public interest in these objects.” Two turn-of-the-millennium Roman glass gems will go on display: one showing the bust of the Roman mythical figure Minerva and another depicting the face of Cupid.

The broader Rediscovering Gems exhibition focuses on classical gems as a whole, paying special attention to how these objects were appreciated in subsequent centuries. A glass display case will recreate an 18th-century collector’s cabinet and include ancillary equipment such as a magnifying glass and cast impressions.

“We promised we’d show the world the gems that were stolen and recovered, rather than hide them away,” Chair of the Board of Trustees George Osborne said in the museum’s press release. Now if only they’d return the other stolen objects in their collection …

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