FBI Investigates Sale of Stolen British Museum Treasures to U.S. Buyers

Hundreds of artifacts sold on eBay linked to a British Museum curator, raising concerns over cultural heritage protection.

The FBI is investigating the sale of hundreds of suspected stolen treasures from the British Museum to U.S. buyers. The agency has helped return 268 items to the museum, claimed by the institution, after they were sold to a Washington D.C. collector. Last year, the British Museum revealed the disappearance, theft, or damage of ancient gems, jewelry, and other items.

In New Orleans, a buyer named Tonio Birbiglia reported FBI contact regarding two gems he purchased on eBay from “sultan1966,” an account linked to senior curator Peter Higgs. Higgs, accused of stealing, damaging, melting, and selling museum artifacts, denies the charges. The museum estimates his thefts, mainly from unregistered items over a decade, amassed £100,000. Court documents indicate Higgs admitted ownership of the eBay account and used aliases like “Paul Higgins.”

Mr Higgs had worked at the British Museum since 1993 but was dismissed earlier this year
Mr Higgs had worked at the British Museum since 1993 but was dismissed earlier this year ( Image- The Mirror/ PA)

Birbiglia, who worked in an antiquities gallery, bought an amethyst Cupid gem for £42 and an orange scarab-beetle gem for £170 from Higgs, but no further investigation was pursued. The FBI, British Museum, and police have not located these gems, raising concerns about the rigor of the investigation.

Beyond the U.S., Danish antiquities dealer Dr. Ittai Gradel, who alerted the museum to the thefts, tracked artifacts to Hamburg, Cologne, Paris, and Hong Kong. Among these was a rare 2nd Century obsidian head of Hercules, which Gradel purchased for £300 in 2017. Though uncatalogued, the British Museum believes these items are from its collection and has retrieved them.

The museum has recovered 626 of the estimated 1,500 stolen items and continues to identify and reclaim its artifacts. The unfolding case underscores the challenges of protecting and proving ownership of cultural heritage items.