British Museum head quits amid deepening scandal over treasure theft
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London: The director of the British Museum has quit with immediate effect amid a growing scandal surrounding the theft of artefacts from its collection, admitting the institution was facing a situation “of the utmost seriousness”.
Hartwig Fischer, a German-born art historian, said the British Museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have” after warnings in 2021 that objects had been stolen.
Many of the more than 1500 items which were stolen or destroyed were kept out of public viewCredit: AP
The situation has developed into a full-blown crisis for the 270-year-old institution, leaving it open to claims that it is not a reliable custodian of treasures, such as the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta stone, which were brought to London from other countries.
Ten days ago the museum admitted that treasures, thought to have been kept in a storeroom, were “missing, stolen or damaged”. About 1500 items are thought to be unaccounted for, including gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.
Fischer, who became director of the museum in 2016 and was the first non-British head of the institution since 1866, had been strongly criticised in past days over his handling of warnings by Dutch art dealer Ittai Gradel in 2021 that objects had been stolen from the museum and were for sale on eBay.
Earlier this week he issued a statement claiming Gradel had withheld information in 2021 and that he had only notified the museum about concerns over “a small number of items”.
Gradel replied that the claim was “an outright lie”, with Fischer later issuing a full apology.
“I misjudged remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel,” he said. “I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks.”
Despite having earlier announced he would leave some time next year, Fischer said his ongoing presence was “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,” he said, adding it had been an honour to lead the “amazing institution”.
Fischer’s deputy, Jonathan Williams, has also resigned. The outcome of the interim arrangement is expected within days.
Peter Higgs, a senior curator at the museum who had worked there for 30 years, was sacked in July this year after the museum was told that priceless treasures had vanished. Staff and conservators who “loved the objects” were “in tears” after an internal investigation revealed the scale of the losses, The Times reported. Higgs denies any wrongdoing.
On Thursday police said that a man had been interviewed after the alleged thefts of ancient artefacts. The Metropolitan Police said that no arrests had been made but that investigating officers had questioned the individual under caution.
George Osborne, former chancellor and chair of the British Museum, said Fischer had acted honourably but said the ongoing scandal had created a “turbulent period” for the institution.
“We are going to fix what has gone wrong,” said Osborne. “The museum has a mission that lasts across generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”
Despina Koutsoumba, the head of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, claimed this week that the scandal underlined the need for restitution of artefacts to their country of origin.
The row comes at a sensitive time for Osborne, who is trying to arrange a deal with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis over the future arrangements for the Parthenon Sculptures, the so-called Elgin marbles.
Under Osborne’s plan, sections of the sculptures housed by the British Museum would be loaned to Athens for a period of perhaps 10 years, with other Greek treasures coming to London as “collateral” and forming the basis for temporary exhibitions.
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