A Roman first century profile intaglio bust of goddess Minerva/Athena – The Trustees of the British Museum

In a move that underscores a shift towards transparency and cultural rejuvenation, the British Museum is preparing to unveil a new exhibition entitled “Rediscovering Gems.” 

This showcase will bring to light ten remarkable Roman gems from its extensive collection, including a captivating cameo featuring the likeness of Cupid, believed to date back to the 1st or 2nd Century AD.

The exhibition unfolds against a shocking revelation that sent ripples throughout the art world. Last August, the British Museum disclosed the loss of around 2,000 items from its storerooms due to theft or damage. 

In the following months, an exhaustive effort resulted in the recovery of hundreds of these items.

Chair of the trustees, George Osborne, emphasizes that the “Rediscovering Gems” exhibition is yet another manifestation of the ongoing cultural transformation at the museum. He states, “We promised we’d show the world the stolen and recovered gems rather than hide them away.”

As a preview, the museum has already unveiled two remarkable gems chosen for the exhibition. Both were graciously returned by Dr. Ittai Gradel, a dealer and collector who played a pivotal role in alerting the authorities about the thefts. Initially met with scepticism, Dr Gradel’s persistence bore fruit.

The Great Court of The British Museum – Alex Segre / Shutterstock

Reflecting on his experience, Dr Gradel shared, “I am greatly pleased to see that the whole culture of the institution appears to be changing to one of much greater openness and willingness to confront problems than what I encountered in 2021.”

Dr. Gradel’s contributions to the recovery process have been instrumental. He meticulously tracked down and returned hundreds of gems he had acquired in good faith. Among the gems destined for the exhibition is an intaglio carved from black glass featuring a bust of Minerva, the Roman goddess of wisdom.

“Rediscovering Gems” is not solely dedicated to stolen items; it will also feature over 500 other objects unrelated to the thefts. The stolen items will be showcased in a secure display case, with clear labels providing context and transparency.

These diminutive masterpieces, often no larger than a thumbnail, offer a captivating portal into the ancient Mediterranean world. They were used as jewellery and seals and were cherished as standalone works of art.

These gems boast intricate engravings and casts depicting emperors, Roman and Greek deities, and scenes from classical mythology. Tom Harrison, the keeper of the British Museum’s Department of Greece and Rome, describes the exhibition as “an intriguing opportunity to shed light on an underappreciated and wonderful art form.”

Glass cameo with bust of Cupid/Eros in different coloured glass (The Trustees of the British Museum)

Curiously, these gems enjoyed immense popularity in the 18th Century but gradually fell out of favour, leading to their long-term confinement, unregistered, in the British Museum’s storerooms for over a Century.

Dr. Gradel contends that these gems have been unjustly “overlooked” and offer “beautiful and fascinating insights into the tastes and mindsets of the ancient Greeks and Romans.” He eagerly anticipates visiting the exhibition, acknowledging its potential as a compelling historical narrative.

In the aftermath of the theft revelation, a senior curator in the Greece and Rome department faced dismissal, though he has consistently denied any wrongdoing. 

The police investigation into the matter remains ongoing. 

Subsequently, the British Museum witnessed a change in leadership, with German art historian Hartwig Fischer resigning and former Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum director Sir Mark Jones stepping in as interim director.

“Rediscovering Gems” promises to be an enthralling journey through the corridors of history and artistic expression. The exhibition will be open to the public, free of charge, in room three at the British Museum from February 15th to June 15th, 2024

Take advantage of this opportunity to witness these stolen treasures restored to their rightful place in the limelight, revealing the intricate tapestry of history and artistry they represent

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