Daisy Dunn

The jaw-dropping story of the British Museum thefts

Plus: Ian McMillan finds the moon in a stray rubber band

The British Museum has launched legal proceedings against curator Peter Higgs, who was dismissed from his curatorial post pending the investigation. Photo: Leon Neal / Getty Images

It’s August 2023 when news breaks that artefacts have gone missing, presumed stolen, from the British Museum. I’m about an hour into investigating the story for a feature when a suspect is named in the press. I know him. He’s the curator I was seated next to at a British Museum dinner nine months earlier.

Listening this week to three preview episodes of Thief at the British Museum, an electrifying nine-part series on Radio 4, I kick myself for the second time for spending most of that evening talking to the professor on my left. What can I remember of the man on my right? He was quiet. Ruddy-faced. Nothing else remarkable springs to mind.

What can I remember of the man? He was quiet. Ruddy-faced. Nothing else remarkable

The British Museum has launched legal proceedings against curator Peter Higgs, who was dismissed from his curatorial post pending the investigation. The path that led them to his name, as described in the new series, is one of the most extraordinary you are likely to hear, but not because it is convoluted – quite the contrary.

We follow that trail through the accounts of Danish gem specialist and dealer Ittai Gradel. He is, quotes presenter Katie Razzall, ‘the museum world’s answer to Sherlock Holmes’. This Danish Holmes is a gem-obsessed ‘outsider’ with a photographic memory. He left academia because he couldn’t bear sitting at the same desk and seeing the same colleagues ‘every bloody day’. One former colleague describes him as ‘quite a character’. His resemblance to Benedict Cumberbatch’s Holmes is hammed up across the episodes to an irritating degree.

Gradel happened upon the trail unwittingly. In 2010, one of his friends, a fellow antiquities dealer, came by a new supplier who purported to be an elderly man named Paul Higgins. Gradel purchased many items from his collection happily enough until some background research revealed there was no man matching his profile in public records. Before a meeting could take place, an email arrived to say that Higgins had died.

Fast-forward a year, and Gradel is delighted to find a new seller on eBay. He goes by the name of Sultan1966 and offers gems worth £5,000 for as little as £15. Gradel is in cameo Eden until, one day some years later, one comes up for sale that he has seen before. How could an object catalogued as belonging to the British Museum possibly be listed here?

The gem isn’t the only thing that’s familiar. Gradel suddenly realises that packaging from another gem he’d ordered from Sultan1966 carried the same name as the earlier supplier who had reportedly died. More bewilderingly still, Gradel’s Paypal receipts reveal a marginally different name: Peter Higgs. Could he be synonymous with the British Museum curator who was born in 1966 and goes by Sultan1966 on Twitter?

Since Higgs has not been charged with anything to date – and his family has protested his innocence – it will be interesting to see how far the BBC probes his life and possible motivations in the remaining six episodes. It certainly sounds as if the Museum will come under scrutiny. Gradel says as much when he describes the strangeness of uncovering a crime to which its staff are oblivious from the comfort of his study in Denmark.

Against all efforts to present him as a weirdo engaged in esoteric research – references to his ‘specialist knowledge about history’ and ‘dusty books about the ancient world’ will grate on anyone with an ounce of intelligence – Gradel emerges from this otherwise gripping series as a normal guy determined to do the right thing. He’s neither Sherlock Holmes nor Miss Marple. His story is that of a rare somebody who keeps his eyes wide open.

Poet Ian McMillan is another advocate of keeping one’s eyes open. While Roman gems tantalise Gradel, park benches, buses and rubber bands are more McMillan’s bag. The Beauty of Everyday Things, which the Yorkshireman presents on Sunday, takes the form of a one-off, half-hour monologue in which he describes what he sees while strolling through his day.

Before dawn he notices tinsel overflowing from a bin, a smell of smoke and a stray rubber band which – this reflects his optimism – reminds him of the moon. Debussy’s Clair de Lune begins to play. ‘Light,’ reflects our poet, ‘is starting to wash the sky’s face.’ Later, he spots fungus that reminds him of his uncle’s ears, and a hanging basket with nothing in it.

You need to be in the right mood for this kind of thing. I am all for the sentiment – get off your phone, look at the world, be alive – but the process of spelling it out can sound strange. That’s not to say there aren’t some beautiful images and turns of phrase. McMillan, like his idol Georges Perec, is an interesting wordsmith, and I recommend sticking with it. But I came away feeling that this exercise is best conducted inside one’s own head.

Daisy Dunn’s The Missing Thread: A New History of the Ancient World by the Women Who Shaped It is published this week.