British Museum director Hartwig Fischer steps down amid theft inquiry

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The director of the British Museum has quit after admitting that the world-famous institution “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to warnings in 2021” about stolen artefacts.

Hartwig Fischer leaves the London museum as it emerged last week that items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged”, prompting a police investigation.

The museum’s board of trustees accepted his resignation, with former chancellor George Osborne, chairman of trustees saying 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 outcome of the interim leadership arrangement is expected within days.

German art historian Fischer 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.”

Ittai Gradel, an author, academic and antiquities dealer, had alerted the museum to some of the stolen items.

Mr Fischer 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.

The Parthenon Sculptures have been kept in the British Museum since 1816 Credit: PA

"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... 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.

On Thursday, it was revealed that a man was interviewed by Metropolitan Police officers following the thefts.

An unnamed member of staff has been sacked and the institution 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.

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”.

The museum's Deputy Director Jonathan Williams has also agreed to step back from his normal duties until an independent review into the thefts has concluded.

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

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