Recovered stolen gems to go on display at British Museum - Museums Association

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Recovered stolen gems to go on display at British Museum

Exhibition will explore the significance of the ancient Mediterranean items
British Museum Collections Theft
Intaglio with profile bust of Minerva or Athena in black glass with white band, Roman 1st century BC or 1st century AD
Intaglio with profile bust of Minerva or Athena in black glass with white band, Roman 1st century BC or 1st century AD Trustees of the British Museum

The British Museum has announced a display of classical gems recovered in the wake of the theft crisis last year.

The institution has tracked down hundreds of allegedly stolen items in the months since revealing in August 2023 that around 2,000 objects were missing from its collection.

The majority of the objects believed to have been stolen were classical gems and gold jewellery dating from the ancient Mediterranean world.

In response to the renewed public interest in the objects, the new exhibition, Rediscovering Gems, will explore the significance of the gems to the ancient world, where they were coveted by royalty, aristocrats, artists, and antiquarians and used as seals, worn as jewellery or collected as objects of beauty.

A statement announcing the exhibition said: “Rediscovering Gems will look at these incredibly small but highly coveted masterpieces, whose designs reflect, and serve as a record of, the personal tastes and aesthetic preferences seen throughout history.”

Reflecting the popularity of the gems during the 18th century,  the items will be displayed in a typical gem cabinet of the period alongside other collector’s equipment, including a magnifying glass, cast impressions and drawings.

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The showcase will include two Roman glass gems from the late 1st century BC to early 1st century AD: an intaglio which features a profile bust of Minerva and a cameo with a bust of Cupid.

Glass cameo with bust of Cupid or Eros in three quarter view, in three layers brown on white on purple glass. Roman, 1st or 2nd century AD Trustees of the British Museum

The gems were returned to the museum as part of a recovery programme launched after the alleged thefts were discovered.

The British Museum said: “Thanks to the hard work of the recovery team, and the cooperation of the dealers and members of the public, hundreds of items have been returned.”

‘We promised we’d show the world the gems that were stolen and recovered - rather than hide them away,” said British Museum chair George Osborne. “It’s another example of culture change underway at the British Museum.”

 ‘We are delighted to be able to put on this exhibition and showcase some of the stunning recovered gems which are now safely back in the museum’s collection,” said Tom Harrison, keeper of the Department of Greece and Rome.  

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“It’s also an interesting opportunity to cast some light on an underappreciated and very beautiful art form. A huge thanks goes out to all those who have lent support and helped us in the recovery programme.”

Rediscovering Gems will be on display for free in Room 3 from 15 February to 15 June 2024.

The alleged theft scandal made headlines worldwide and led to the resignations of former director Hartwig Fischer and former deputy director Jonathan Williams. Recruitment is currently under way for a new director to take over from interim chief Mark Jones, who came out of retirement to help steer the museum through the crisis.  

Jones has launched an initiative to fully digitise the museum’s collection within the next five years and make it publicly accessible in the hope of preventing future thefts.

A staff member was fired last August in connection with the alleged thefts and an investigation by the Metropolitan Police is ongoing. A spokesperson for the Met said there were no updates the case.

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