The Wall Street Journal published a nice article and interview with the Dutch dealer credited with exposing the theft of coins and gems by a British Museum curator. Here's an excerpt.
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 includes 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.
Bibliophiles will appreciate how an old catalog assisted the investigation.
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.
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.
To read the complete article or listen to a podcast (subscription required), see:
How an Academic Uncovered One of the Biggest Museum Heists of All Time
How an Antiques Dealer Uncovered a Massive Museum Heist
To read the earlier E-Sylum articles, see:
BRITISH MUSEUM GRAPPLES WITH THEFTS
MARK JONES NAMED INTERIM BRITISH MUSEUM DIRECTOR
BRITISH MUSEUM SEEKS RECOVERY OF STOLEN ITEMS
Wayne Homren, Editor
The Numismatic Bibliomania Society is a non-profit organization
promoting numismatic literature. See our web site at coinbooks.org.
To submit items for publication in The E-Sylum, write to the Editor
at this address: firstname.lastname@example.org
To subscribe go to: https://my.binhost.com/lists/listinfo/esylum
Copyright © 1998 - 2023 The Numismatic Bibliomania Society (NBS)
All Rights Reserved.
NBS Home Page
Contact the NBS webmaster