British Museum director Hartwig Fischer is immediately stepping down, bringing an early end to his tenure at the London institution. Initially expected to depart next year, Fischer said he left because of controversy over the theft of objects from the museum’s collection, reportedly by a senior curator on staff there.
This week, Ittai Gradel, a Dutch antiquities dealer, said he had told the British Museum about the thefts two years ago and claimed that his allegations had gone unheeded.
Fischer previously claimed that he took Gradel’s allegations “seriously.” In a statement issued on Friday, Fischer changed his tune.
“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,” Fischer wrote in a press statement. “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.
“The situation facing the Museum is of the utmost seriousness,” Fischer continued. “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.”
Fischer also said he offered his resignation to the Chairman of the Trustees, and would step down as soon as the institution’s board of trustees have established an interim leadership arrangement. The museum said its the board has accepted Fischer’s decision.
His resignation followed the museum’s announcement on August 16 of missing, stolen, and damaged items from its collection, an independent review of its security protocols, and a staff member being dismissed as a result.
News reports identified the fired staff member as veteran Greek antiquities curator Peter Higgs, who had taken “more than 1,500 items.” Antiquities had reportedly been listed on the e-commerce platform eBay for as little as $51.
Several hours after Fischer announced he would be immediately stepping down, the museum also sent out a statement that deputy director Jonathan Williams “has agreed to voluntarily step back from his normal duties until the independent review into the thefts at the Museum has concluded. This will happen with immediate effect.”
Reports from the BBC News, The New York Times and The Telegraph said Gradel had also contacted Williams, trustee Paul Ruddock, and board chairman George Osbourne in 2021 about his concerns of items from the museum’s collection were being listed on eBay. However, Williams replied to Gradel by email that a “thorough investigation” had found “no suggestion of any wrongdoing”, adding that the institution’s “collection is protected”.
On August 25, Osbourne also released a statement about Fischer’s decision to step down immediately, calling the situation a “turbulent period” and emphasizing the institution’s intention “to fix what has gone wrong”. The former Chancellor of the UK government has not received the same calls to resign from his position as Fischer or Williams.
As a result of the scandal, officials from Nigeria and Greece pressed once more for the British Museum to repatriate the institution’s Benin Bronzes and the Parthenon Marbles due to questions about their security and safety.
This is a breaking news story and will be updated.