British Museum director resigns after spate of treasure thefts

Hartwig Fischer admitted the museum ‘did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to warnings in 2021’

Martha McHardy
Friday 25 August 2023 19:50 BST
British Museum boss reveals items have been stolen as staff member dismissed

The director of the British Museum will be stepping down from his position with immediate effect as a probe into stolen artefacts continues, it has been announced.

Hartwig Fischer’s resignation on Friday was folllowed a few hours latter by director Jonathan Williams, who has agreed to voluntarily step back with immediate effect from his normal duties until the independent review into thefts has concluded.

Former chancellor George Osborne, who is the museum’s chairman of trustees, said Mr Fischer had “acted honourably” and that “no one has ever doubted Hartwig’s integrity, his dedication to his job, or his love for the museum”.

Hartwig Fischer is stepping down with immediate effect (PA Media)

The departures come after former curator Peter Higgs was sacked from the museum after it emerged last week that items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged”, prompting a police investigation. His family have said he maintains his innocence.

Items including gold jewellery, semi-precious stones and glass were taken from the museum before 2023 and over a “significant” period of time.

A man has been interviewed by the Metropolitan Police over the thefts, the force said on Thursday, but no arrests have been made.

Emails leaked to BBC News claim the museum was alerted by antiquities dealer Ittai Gradel to items being sold on eBay in 2021 and ignored the report.

In comments he has now apologised for, Mr Fischer spoke of his “frustration” at Dr Gradel, claiming he only raised concerns about “a small number of items” being sold on eBay.

“Concerns were only raised about a small number of items, and our investigation concluded that those items were all accounted for,” Mr Fischer said.

“We now have reason to believe that the individual who raised concerns had many more items in his possession, and it’s frustrating that that was not revealed to us as it would have aided our investigations.”

It emerged last week that items from the museum’s collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged” (PA Wire)

Mr Fischer said the museum had taken concerns two years ago about a small number of items “seriously”. He said an audit was carried out in 2022 that revealed a “bigger problem”.

But the British Museum director has now retracted those claims.

He said in a statement: “Over the last few days I have been reviewing in detail the events around the thefts from the British Museum and the investigation into them. It is evident that the British Museum did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to the warnings in 2021, and to the problem that has now fully emerged.

“The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director. I also misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel. I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks.

“I have offered my resignation to the chairman of the trustees, and will step down as soon as the board have established an interim leadership arrangement. This will remain in place until a new director is chosen.

“The situation facing the museum is of the utmost seriousness. I sincerely believe it will come through this moment and emerge stronger, but sadly I have come to the conclusion that my presence is proving a distraction.

“That is the last thing I would want. Over the last seven years I have been privileged to work with some of the most talented and dedicated public servants. The British Museum is an amazing institution, and it has been the honour of my life to lead it.”

Curator Peter Higgs was sacked by the museum last month but his family says he maintains his innocence (Brick Classicists Empire)

The museum has not specified how many items have been stolen or detailed what the missing items are, saying only that they are “small pieces” dating from the “15th century BC to the 19th century AD”.

However, the number of the stolen items is now believed to be “well over 1,000” and “closer to 2,000”, with a value running into “millions of pounds”, the Daily Telegraph reported.

Items had reportedly been disappearing for several years, although it is understood that they were stored items rather than those on display.

Mr Fischer, a German art historian, has been director of the British Museum since 2016, and announced in July he would be stepping down next year.

Mr Osborne said: “Hartwig had already announced his intention to step down some weeks ago, so the process of finding a new permanent director is already underway.

“The Trustees will now establish an interim arrangement, ensuring that the museum has the necessary leadership to take it through this turbulent period as we learn the lessons of what went wrong, and use them to develop plans for a strong future.

“The Trustees also wish to thank the many many staff who work so hard for the museum and keep it running.

“I am clear about this: we are going to fix what has gone wrong. The museum has a mission that lasts across generations.

“We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”

Mr Fischer will step down from his role once an interim leadership arrangement is in place, the museum said.

The outcome of the interim leadership arrangement is expected within days.

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