Some of the 2,000 British Museum stolen have been recovered, chairman George Osborne confirms

The former chancellor George Osborne says "groupthink" may have prevented the British Museum's leadership from believing treasures had been stolen.

Some of the estimated 2,000 artefacts stolen from the British Museum have already been recovered, George Osborne has confirmed.

The former chancellor, who is now chairman of the museum’s trustees, said “groupthink” may have prevented the institution’s leadership from believing that treasures had been taken.

Director Hartwig Fischer has resigned and his deputy Jonathan Williams has stepped back in the wake of the scandal, which Mr Osborne conceded had damaged the British Museum’s reputation.

An unnamed member of staff suspected of involvement has been sacked and the museum said it is taking legal action, while a police investigation is underway.

Mr Osborne told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Saturday: “We have started to recover some of the stolen items, which is a silver lining to a dark cloud.”

The London museum is working with the art loss register and members of the antiquarian community who are helping to return some of the missing items, he said, adding that security has been stepped up around museum storerooms.

The artefacts stolen were “small items of jewellery, gems, bits of gold that were not on public display”.

The former Conservative minister admitted the museum did not have a complete catalogue of everything in its collection amassed over several hundred years.

“Someone with knowledge of what’s not registered has a big advantage in removing some of those items,” he said.

“Obviously, a clear outcome from what has happened is that the British Museum has to accelerate the process that was already underway of getting a complete register of the items in our collection.”

The Parthenon Sculptures have been kept in the British Museum since 1816 Credit: PA

The former Conservative minister added: “It’s certainly been damaging to the British Museum’s reputation. I think that’s sort of stating the obvious and that’s why I’m apologising on behalf of the museum.

“We believe we’ve been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and, frankly, more could have been done to prevent them.”

Mr Osborne vowed that “it is a mess that we are going to clear up”.

He said an independent review will look into “how come the museum missed some of the signals that could have been picked up”, not least when the museum was alerted by an antiquities dealer to items being sold on eBay in 2021.

While he denied there had been a “deliberate cover-up”, Mr Osborne said: “Was there some potential groupthink in the museum at the time, at the very top of the museum, that just couldn’t believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn’t believe that one of the members of staff were doing this? Yes, that’s very possible.”

Antiquities dealer Ittai Gradel previously said claims he had withheld information from the institution were an “outright lie”.

It is understood that the artefacts were taken before 2023 and over a “significant” period of time.

The Metropolitan Police confirmed on Thursday that a man had been interviewed in connection with the alleged thefts.

The force said no arrests had been made and it would continue to work “closely” with the British Museum as inquiries continue.

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