Nigerian and Greek officials have demanded the return of treasures after thousands of items were stolen from the British Museum.
More than 900 Benin Bronze pieces and the Parthenon Marbles – also known as Elgin Marbles – are now the centre of renewed calls for repatriation amid accusations the British Museum’s security cannot be trusted.
“It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin Bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” said Abba Isa Tijani, Director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, speaking to Sky News.
The artefacts, which date back as far as the 16th century, were removed from Benin City after British forces invaded the Kingdom in modern day Nigeria in 1897.
“They are the subject of loot. They were illegally taken out of the country,” Mr Tijani said, before demanding the British Museum hands back the treasures.
“It is irrespective whether they are safe there. That is not an issue. The issue is that these are stolen artefacts, and they should be returned to Nigeria to the communities that they belong to.”
Mr Tijani said the country’s newly appointed minister of Arts, Culture and Creative Economy, Hannatu Musawa, will write to the British Museum and the British government within weeks to demand the immediate repatriation of the Benin Bronzes.
Artefacts sold on eBay
The call is echoed by Greek archaeologists who told Sky News they too are revamping efforts to have treasures returned.
The Parthenon Marbles, on display at the British Museum since the 19th Century, have been the centre of a longstanding international dispute.
Despina Koutsoumba, head of the Greek Association of Archaeologists, said there is shock among colleagues now at how items can be stolen from such a renowned institution.
“We read that these artefacts were sold on eBay. This is new, artefacts from museums being sold on eBay.
“What we’re also worried about is that the British Museum knew (about the thefts) since 2021, and didn’t announce what they did. What are the procedures?”
‘They’re trying to shoot the messenger’
The British Museum says it conducted an immediate investigation after concerns were raised in 2021. In a statement Hartwig Fischer, director of the British Museum, said: “Concerns were only raised about a small number of items, and our investigation concluded that those items were all accounted for.
“We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.”
But the whistleblower, antiques dealer Ittai Gradel, said his concerns were ignored.
“I told them about the few items where I had absolute proof that they came from the British Museum. I said, ‘I have all the information you would require me, all the assistance, I’m entirely at your disposal’. They never contacted and now they’re trying to shoot the messenger,” he said.
The museum says it called the police after an audit last year revealed a bigger problem. Treasures dating back 3,400 years have gone missing, and the thefts are thought to have taken place over several years.
Museum investigations led to a disciplinary process after which a member of staff was sacked. No arrests have been made.
Tim Loughton, chair of the British Museum All-Party Parliamentary Group says focus should be on getting the missing items back.
“The Greek authorities and others are being rather blatantly opportunistic and, rather than being helpful and saying, ‘Right, what can we do amongst the archaeological world to help the British Museum retrieve these objects’, they’re coming up with claims about ‘Oh well that just shows that the Elgin Marbles are not safe in the British Museum’. It’s complete nonsense,” he said.
The British Museum’s collection has grown since it was founded in 1753. Items have been acquired in a variety of ways and many are now subject to questions about, or requests for, return to other countries, including the Maqdala Collection to Ethiopia, the Rosetta Stone to Egypt and two large stone moai from Rapa Nui (Easter Island).