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British Museum deputy director steps back after boss quits over theft probe

British Museum deputy director steps back after boss quits over theft probe

The head of the British Museum has resigned and his deputy has stepped back in the wake of a scandal over stolen artefacts that has prompted a police investigation.

Director Hartwig Fischer and deputy director Jonathan Williams both announced their decisions on Friday.

German art historian, Mr Fischer, said the situation facing the London museum was “of the utmost seriousness” and that responsibility for the failure “must ultimately rest with the director”.

The museum’s board of trustees accepted his resignation, with former chancellor George Osborne – chairman of trustees – saying 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”.

The institution said Mr Fischer would step down “with immediate effect”, but later clarified he would step down once an interim leadership arrangement was in place.

The PA news agency understands the outcome of the interim arrangement is expected within days.

A statement from the British Museum later said Williams had agreed to “voluntarily step back” from his duties until the independent review into the thefts had concluded.

Hartwig Fischer to step down
Hartwig Fischer (Benedict Johnson/The British Museum/PA)

The museum said this would happen “with immediate effect”.

In his statement, Mr Fischer admitted the museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to warnings in 2021” about the stolen artefacts.

“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,” he said.

“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.”

Ittai Gradel, an author, academic and antiquities dealer, had previously alerted the museum to some of the stolen items, and told the PA news agency that claims he had withheld information from the institution were an “outright lie”.

“I was explicit in my communication with the BM (British Museum) that I was entirely at their disposal for any further information or assistance they would require. They never contacted me,” he said.

In his statement Mr Fischer said he had “misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel”.

“I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks,” he said.

He continued: “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.”

In July, Mr Fischer, who has been in the post since 2016, announced 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 under way.

“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.”

The Metropolitan Police confirmed on Thursday that a man had been interviewed in connection with the alleged thefts.

The force said no arrests had been made and it would continue to work “closely” with the British Museum as inquiries continue.

An unnamed member of staff has been sacked and the museum said it is taking legal action.

It is understood that the items – which include gold jewellery, gems of semi-precious stones and glass – were taken before 2023 and over a “significant” period of time.