Gems stolen from British Museum seen for first time

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Bacchus, the Roman god of wine and pleasure, is depicted in green, white and blue banded glass
By Katie Razzall
Culture and media editor

Ten glass gems have been put on display for the first time since they were stolen from the British Museum.

In August, the museum announced up to 2,000 objects from its storerooms were missing, stolen or damaged.

Interim director Sir Mark Jones told the BBC the process to recover them was “lengthy” and “complicated”. So far, 356 items have been retrieved from six different sources, he revealed.

Ten of them now feature in an exhibition called Rediscovering Gems.

Among the tiny items are an ancient gem of green, white and blue banded glass showing the Roman god of wine and pleasure, Bacchus, dating from the 1st Century BC; and one in yellow depicting the Greek god Zeus in eagle form.

The vast majority of the recovered items have come from Danish gemstone dealer Dr Ittai Gradel, who first alerted the museum to the thefts in 2021.

Dr Gradel told the BBC they were “direct evidence of the tastes, the foibles, the quirks, the mentality of the ancient Romans – a way to get to know these long-dead people”.

He added: “That view into their mindsets never ceases to fascinate me.”

Gems – engraved in stone or cast in glass – were highly coveted for centuries, and competition to buy them was stiff, particularly in the 18th Century. They were also expensive.

Aurelia Masson-Berghoff, curator of the museum’s recovery programme, said one of the Dukes of Marlborough once bought one “instead of buying a small palace in Venice”. They were the same price.

But gems fell out of favour in the early 19th Century, partly because their popularity had led to the creation of fakes that were passed off as Roman and Greek. “That shook the market” Sir Mark said.

And that may be one explanation why many of the museum’s gems were left unregistered, which made them easier to steal.

Sir Mark said he expected it to take “at least a couple of years” to recover more of the 1,600 stolen items.

“Every museum feels a strong sense of responsibility for the objects in its care. Clearly that care was missing.”

But he believes “the British Museum will certainly recover from it… I feel certain of that”.

A member of staff has been dismissed and a police investigation is ongoing.

The Rediscovering Gems exhibition is on from Thursday, 15 February, until 2 June.

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