How an Academic Uncovered One of the Biggest Museum Heists of All Time
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How an Academic Uncovered One of the Biggest Museum Heists of All Time

When a Danish dealer named Ittai Gradel blew the whistle on stolen British Museum antiquities showing up online, it was the culmination of a year-long antiques who dunit

By MAX COLCHESTER
Tue, Oct 24, 2023 12:46pmGrey Clock 9 min

ITTAI GRADEL, an academic–turned–gem dealer in Denmark, was trawling eBay a decade ago when he thought he had stumbled across a gold mine.

On his screen, Gradel saw a seller called Sultan1966 advertising a glass gem from the 19th century. Gradel immediately recognized it as something much more valuable: an agate Roman Medusa cameo from the second century, featuring the mythical Gorgon with snakes as hair. He snapped it up for £15 plus postage, then turned around and sold it to a collector for a couple of thousand pounds.

In the following years, Sultan1966 kept unearthing incredible finds at rock-bottom prices. Gradel bought a ring for £150, which he assumed was a copy of one from the Ptolemaic kingdom, an ancient Greco-Egyptian empire. But when he received the item and verified it was an original from over 2,000 years ago, Gradel told Sultan1966 he had mispriced his ring and sent him an extra £500. “It was ridiculous,” he remembers thinking.

Gradel inquired as to how the seller, an Englishman whose name was listed as Paul Higgins, had come across these items. Sultan1966 said he had acquired them from his grandfather, who owned a junk shop in York, in northern England, and died in 1953. Gradel checked the death records and found that such a man with the matching name did indeed die, but in 1952. The ludicrously low prices and oddly credible backstory left Gradel comfortable that he had encountered every dealer’s dream seller. “He was clueless,” recalls Gradel.

Then, in 2016, Sultan1966 posted a piece on eBay by mistake. It showed a fragment of a sardonyx cameo dating from Roman times engraved with the head and shoulder of a girl stooping to her right. Intrigued, Gradel screenshotted the item. Sultan1966 quickly removed it from the website and said that it actually belonged to his sister, who didn’t want to sell it.

Gradel thought not much more about it. But in 2020, he came across an image on the British Museum’s website that showed the exact same item in its collection. Furthermore, the color photograph was recent. It suddenly dawned on Gradel: There was a thief in the British Museum. “And he was likely still within the walls,” he says.

So began an antiques whodunit—whose cast of characters include an Oxford-based priest-cum-archaeologist, a handful of rare-gem dealers and some of the British Museum’s most august researchers—that has shaken the premise behind the museum’s most important reason for existing: that it is the best place to safely house some of the world’s greatest treasures.

This summer the British Museum said that around 2,000 items had gone missing from its collection. The museum’s director resigned. The police are on the case. So far, no one has been charged with a crime. But nations from Nigeria to China have used the scandal to further long-running requests to have items stored in the museum returned. The damage to the museum’s reputation is potentially incalculable, and many of the allegedly stolen items may never be found.

The art world is full of tales of audacious heists involving high-profile pieces, from the former Louvre worker in 1911 who simply snatched the Mona Lisa on his way home to the two men who swiped Edvard Munch’s The Scream from an Oslo museum in 1994, leaving behind a note to its directors thanking them for the poor security.

In this case, Gradel suspects, what happened was far more humdrum—and, therefore, more disturbing. The British Museum had failed to properly catalog thousands of its pieces. Meanwhile its curators had free rein over one of the biggest treasure troves in the world. And one had possibly gone rogue.

The 58-year-old Gradel makes for an unlikely Hercule Poirot. Sipping a tomato juice in a central London bar on a September afternoon, the academic rattles through the precise details of his interactions with the museum and gives an impassioned description of the engraved stones he has seen and collected over the years.

As a young man, the Israeli-born Gradel worked as a railwayman on the London Underground to pay for his studies. After studying archaeology, and a stint in British academia, which he greatly disliked, he decided in 2008 to trade antiques.

He started with books but discovered that it was already a widely mined market. He switched to a more niche specialty: gems from the Greco-Roman period. Only a handful of experts possess enough knowledge to sort ancient glass or semiprecious engraved stone gems from latter-day copies. Gradel, who has no office and works from a modest house on an island in Denmark, spends his days scouring the wares of auctions and dealers, trying to find mispriced cameos and intaglios that he can buy and sell at a profit.

Gradel has one major advantage over fellow dealers: a photographic memory. Peter Szuhay, a London-based dealer who has known Gradel for over a decade, says Gradel has memorized which hairstyles ancient Romans wore in different years, a skill that helps him to accurately date portraits carved into gems. “No other dealer would have caught the thief,” Szuhay says.

Around the time that Gradel saw the sardonyx piece in 2020, which he suspected came from the British Museum, he made another worrying discovery. Back in 2015, Sultan1966 had put up for sale a fragment of a green stone showing the profile of a Roman man with a likeness to Emperor Augustus. The profile on the stone had a distinct lock of hair sticking out of the front, a feature Gradel noted was unusual for Roman coiffure at the time. Gradel lost the bid to a fellow dealer, who bought it for £69.

A few years later, another dealer, Malcolm Hay, who now owned the piece, tried to sell it. An intermediary sent it to Gradel to see if he was interested in the fragment, which measures roughly the width of a finger.

A while after, Gradel read a book by a Polish gem specialist that featured an image of a stone from a 1926 British Museum catalog blown up on a large scale. “I thought that looked familiar,” he recalled thinking. There, in the book, was the gem with the same Roman profile and the same distinctive hairstyle. That, along with a couple of tiny scratches on the man’s nasal ridge, matched exactly the piece Gradel received a year earlier. Clearly, Gradel concluded, they were the same piece.

Sitting in his study in Denmark, he then went through his payments to Sultan1966, or Paul Higgins, checking out his PayPal account. Though the seller listed his name as Paul Higgins on eBay, he had a different name on his PayPal account: Peter Higgs. At first Gradel didn’t think much of this—he hadn’t heard of anyone of that name. Then he called a dealer friend of his, Rolf von Kiaer, who had also bought items from Sultan1966, to explain the weird situation. “Ittai,” a shocked Kiaer told him. “You do realize this is the name of a curator in the British Museum, don’t you?”

Gradel felt the hairs on his neck begin to stand up. But the evidence accumulated. Paul Higgins’s email was Bodrum1966@gmail.com, an oblique reference to an ancient Greek city in Turkey. Higgs, a curator in the museum’s department of Greece and Rome, had once published a book called After the Mausoleum: Hellenistic Sculptures From Bodrum in the British Museum. Higgs’s Twitter handle was @sultan1966.

Gradel was floored. Still, he had to be sure that the pieces he had seen on eBay were indeed from the British Museum’s collection and weren’t just replicas knocking around the antiques market. It would be no small feat: Only around 4.5 million of the 8 million estimated pieces in the British Museum have been cataloged online.

Gradel emailed Martin Henig, an 81-year-old archaeologist and priest who is one of the world’s foremost gem experts at Oxford University. Henig quickly dusted off the 1926 Catalogue of the Engraved Gems and Cameos, Greek, Etruscan and Romanin the British Museum, which he happened to have in his home library. Grainy images indicated the pieces Gradel had flagged were indeed original and had resided in the museum.

Gradel also raised the alarm with Hay. In 2020 Hay, a wiry Englishman from west London, went to the museum, which was half empty because of the pandemic, to meet with its deputy director, Jonathan Williams, and another curator from the gem collection. The meeting was slightly surreal, Hay says. The British Museum officials talked vaguely about how the museum had been bombed during World War II, which disturbed some of the collections, Hay recalls. After being thanked, he asked if he could see some more gems, but was instead bustled away and told they were all in boxes. Hay gave them the stone but left bemused. “At no point during the meeting did they say, ‘This is our gem,’ ” he said.

Then—nothing happened. Gradel became obsessed with the idea that he had inadvertently traded stolen goods. “If I had given up on this, then I would have become complicit,” he says. He flitted between despair at the prospect of the British Museum being dragged through the mud and feeling like a coward for not immediately naming the suspected thief outright. Higgs meanwhile was promoted to acting keeper of Greek collections.

In early 2021, Gradel decided to email Williams, laying out, in a somewhat manic way, his conclusions. “I write to you because of a disturbing discovery I have made, involving theft from the British Museum, apparently by one of your curators,” he wrote. For months, he received no reply. Then Williams emailed back to inform him that his fears were misplaced, an investigation had concluded and that the gems he had inquired about were still in the collection.

Gradel then made a mistake. He shared his finding with Dorothy Lobel King, an archaeologist-turned-author, as he weighed the idea of leaking the news via social media. It later transpired that King went straight to Higgs to ask him about the allegation. King declined to comment.

Suspicious that a cover-up was underway, Gradel asked his dealer friend who had initially bought the green Augustus gem from Sultan1966 whether the British Museum had bothered to ask him about his purchase. It hadn’t. Clearly the internal probe was a joke, he concluded.

In October 2022, Gradel got the contact details of a trustee of the British Museum and emailed him to warn him a thief was on the loose and the museum management wasn’t doing anything about it. The trustee forwarded the email to the chair of the British Museum, George Osborne, who ordered a fresh probe. This summer the British Museum announced it had fired a member of its staff after items from its collection had vanished, including some dating back to the 15th century B.C. It said it would launch an independent inquiry into security and kick-start a program to recover the lost items. Days later, it emerged that the staff member fired was not a janitor or clerk, but Higgs. Williams also stepped back from day-to-day duties.

Higgs’s son told the U.K. media he believes his father is innocent. Efforts to contact Higgs were unsuccessful.

The curator was a stalwart of the British Museum, where he worked for the past three decades. Higgs briefly gained notoriety as one of the museum’s “Monuments Men” who helped identify looted pieces. In interviews at the time, he spoke passionately about his field and how he fell in love with ancient artifacts as a young boy. The 56-year-old did not appear to be living in great luxury. He was recently photographed outside his terraced house in Hastings, where he drives a Nissan Micra. Top-level keepers at the British Museum typically earn around £65,000 a year, according to recent job postings; middle-ranking curators make less.

In the aftermath, Gradel has been in contact with police and the museum’s independent investigation. He says that upon opening a drawer, the British Museum staff found almost an entire collection of 935 individually uncataloged gems missing. Perhaps another 150 pieces with gold fixtures or mountings may have been melted down and sold off.

The British Museum declined to comment on the ongoing probe, or on Higgs’s alleged involvement, but said it was accelerating the cataloging process under new management. The museum says the vast majority of the missing items are from the department of Greece and Rome. It added they mainly consist of gems and gold jewelry. “We were the victims of an inside job by someone who, we believe, over a long period of time was stealing from the museum, and the museum had put trust in,” Osborne, the British Museum’s chair, recently told a British parliamentary committee. He added the thefts may have gone on for up to 25 years and the alleged culprit altered computer records to hide his thefts. The museum has so far recovered 350 items.

A representative for London’s Metropolitan Police Service declined to comment on the specifics of the case but said the police force had interviewed a man in August.

Gradel, Henig and others involved still can’t understand why anyone would take the risk to sell valuable items at such a discount, let alone a curator who had devoted his life to protecting and understanding these ancient artifacts. They speculate that it must be a volume play that went on for years in hopes that a drip-drip of small underpriced items wouldn’t attract attention. “It only made sense if only the tiniest tip of a much larger iceberg,” Gradel says.

Particularly shocking was the idea that some of these ancient gold pieces may have been melted down. The Roman cameo owned by Hay was chipped, indicating it may have cracked while being prized out of a ring mount. The 2,000-year-old ring Gradel had bought from Sultan1966 had nicks around the edge, which he suspects were caused by pliers to test whether it was made from gold (it wasn’t). Melting down antique jewelry reduces its value, but once sold or made into new jewelry, it becomes untraceable.

Recently Gradel went back through his other purchases—in particular a cluster of several hundred gems he bought for £20,000 between 2010 and 2013. The seller, says Gradel, claimed in an email to be an elderly English gentleman who said they were heirlooms from an estate sale in northern England. Gradel recalls how, in 2011, a fellow dealer offered to meet the vendor on Gradel’s behalf. But shortly before they were due to meet, the vendor’s purported son emailed to say that the elderly man had passed away. The old fellow was called Paul Higgins.

Gradel says he is preparing to hand that collection of around 290 gems back to the British Museum, as he assumes they were pilfered. After that he won’t devote time to hunting down the remaining gems on the open market. “My work,” he says, “is done.”



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A Killer Golf Swing Is a Hot Job Skill Now

Companies are eager to hire strong players who use hybrid work schedules to schmooze clients on the course

By CALLUM BORCHERS
Fri, Jun 14, 2024 5 min

Standout golfers who aren’t quite PGA Tour material now have somewhere else to play professionally: Corporate America.

People who can smash 300-yard drives and sink birdie putts are sought-after hires in finance, consulting, sales and other industries, recruiters say. In the hybrid work era, the business golf outing is back in a big way.

Executive recruiter Shawn Cole says he gets so many requests to find ace golfers that he records candidates’ handicaps, an index based on average number of strokes over par, in the information packets he submits to clients. Golf alone can’t get you a plum job, he says—but not playing could cost you one.

“I know a guy that literally flies around the world in a private jet loaded with French wine, and he golfs and lands hundred-million-dollar deals,” Cole says.

Tee times and networking sessions have long gone hand-in-golf-glove. Despite criticism that doing business on the course undermines diversity, equity and inclusion efforts—and the fact that golf clubs haven’t always been open to women and minorities —people who mix golf and work say the outings are one of the last reprieves from 30-minute calendar blocks

Stars like Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie West helped expand participation in the sport. Still, just 22% of golfers are nonwhite and 26% are women, according to the National Golf Foundation.

To lure more people, clubs have relaxed rules against mobile-phone use on the course, embracing white-collar professionals who want to entertain clients on the links without disconnecting from the office. It’s no longer taboo to check email from your cart or take a quick call at the halfway turn.

With so much other business conducted virtually, shaking hands on the green and schmoozing over clubhouse beers is now seen as making an extra effort, not slacking off.

Americans played a record 531 million rounds last year. Weekday play has nearly doubled since 2019, with much of the action during business hours , according to research by Stanford University economist Nicholas Bloom .

“It would’ve been scandalous in 2019 to be having multiple meetings a week on the golf course,” Bloom says. “In 2024, if you’re producing results, no one’s going to see anything wrong with it.”

A financial adviser at a major Wall Street bank who competes on the amateur circuit told me he completes 90% of his tasks by 10 a.m. because he manages long-term investment plans that change infrequently. The rest of his workday often involves golfing with clients and prospects. He’s a member of a private club with a multiyear waiting list, and people jump at the chance to join him on a course they normally can’t access.

There is an art to bringing in business this way. He never initiates shoptalk, telling his playing partners the round is about having fun and getting to know each other. They can’t resist asking about investment strategies by the back nine, he says.

Work hard, play hard

Matt Parziale golfed professionally on minor-league tours for several years, but when his dream of making the big time ended, he had to get a regular job. He became a firefighter, like his dad.

A few years later he won one of the biggest amateur tournaments in the country, earning spots in the 2018 Masters and U.S. Open, where he tied for first among non-pros.

The brush with celebrity brought introductions to business types that Parziale, 35 years old, says he wouldn’t have met otherwise. One connection led to a job with a large insurance broker. In 2022 he jumped to Deland, Gibson Insurance Associates in Wellesley, Mass., which recognised his golf game as a tool to help win large accounts.

He rescheduled our interview because he was hosting clients at a private club on Cape Cod, and squeezed me in the next morning, before teeing off with a business group in Newport, R.I.

A short time ago, Parziale couldn’t imagine making a living this way. Now he’s the norm in elite amateur golf circles.

“I look around at the guys at the events I play, and they all have these jobs ,” he says.

His boss, Chief Executive Chip Gibson, says Parziale is good at bringing in business because he puts as much effort into building relationships as honing his game. A golf outing is merely an opportunity to build trust that can eventually lead to a deal, and it’s a misconception that people who golf during work hours don’t work hard, he says.

Barry Allison’s single-digit handicap is an asset in his role as a management consultant at Accenture , where he specialises in travel and hospitality. He splits time between Washington, D.C., and The Villages, Fla., a golf mecca that boasts more than 50 courses.

It can be hard to get to know people in distributed work environments, he says. Go golfing and you’ll learn a lot about someone’s temperament—especially after a bad shot.

“If you see a guy snap a club over his knee, you don’t know what he’s going to snap next,” Allison says.

Special access

On a recent afternoon I was a lunch guest at Brae Burn Country Club, a private enclave outside Boston that was the site of U.S. Golf Association championships won by legends like Walter Hagen and Bobby Jones. I parked in the second lot because the first one was full—on a Wednesday.

My host was Cullen Onstott, managing director of the Onstott Group executive search firm and a former collegiate golfer at Fairfield University. He explained one reason companies prize excellent golfers is they can put well-practiced swings on autopilot and devote most of their attention to chitchat.

It’s hard to talk with potential customers about their needs and interests when you’re hunting for errant shots in the woods. It’s also challenging if you show off.

The first hole at Brae Burn is a 318-yard par 4 that slopes down, enabling big hitters like Onstott to reach the putting green in a single stroke. But to stay close to his playing partners and keep the conversation flowing, he sometimes hits a shorter shot.

Having an “in” at an exclusive club can make you a catch. Bo Burch, an executive recruiter in North Carolina, says clubs in his region tend to attract members according to their business sectors. One might be chock-full of real-estate investors while another has potential buyers of industrial manufacturing equipment.

Burch looks for candidates who are members of clubs that align with his clients’ industries, though he stresses that business acumen comes first when filling positions.

Tami McQueen, a former Division I tennis player and current chief marketing officer at Atlanta investment firm BIP Capital, signed up for private golf lessons this year. She had noticed colleagues were wearing polos with course logos and bringing their clubs to work. She wanted in.

McQueen joined business associates on the golf course for the first time in March at the PGA National Resort in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla. She has lowered her handicap to a respectable 26 and says her new skill lends a professional edge.

“To be able to say, ‘I can play with you and we can have those business meetings on the course’ definitely opens a lot more doors,” she says.

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