British Museum director resigns over artefact thefts under his watch

London: The director of the British Museum, one London’s premier tourist attractions with thousands of precious artefacts on display including from India, has resigned from his post even as it emerged on Saturday that some of the 2,000 stolen artefacts have been recovered.

Hartwig Fischer issued his resignation announcement on Friday to say that it is now evident that the museum did not respond “comprehensively” to warnings around the feared thefts and that the responsibility ultimately rests with him.

On Saturday, chair of the museum’s board of trustees George Osborne told the BBC that “we have already started to recover some of the stolen items”.

“We believe we have been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and frankly more could have been done to prevent them,” said Osborne.

Meanwhile, Fischer’s resignation came over a week after a member of staff from the museum was sacked pending legal action after several treasures from a storeroom at the museum were found to have been stolen.

“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,” said Fischer.

“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,” he said.

The outgoing director, a German art historian, added that the situation facing the museum is of the “utmost seriousness” but that it will come through this 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,” he added.

Earlier this week, Fischer defended the museum’s investigation in 2021, when it had told antiques dealer Ittai Gradel that “all objects were accounted for”. Fischer said he had “reason to believe” Dr Gradel had withheld information on other missing items, a comment Gradel said was “an outright lie”.

“I also misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel. I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks,” Fischer said in his resignation statement, which has been welcomed by the antiques dealer.

The famous public museum is dedicated to human history, art and culture, which also has several ancient Indian artefacts on display including a gallery devoted to ‘India: Amaravati’ sculptures. Earlier this month, it said it has launched an independent review of security after items from the collection were found to be missing, stolen or damaged earlier this year.

The matter is also under investigation by the Economic Crime Command of the Metropolitan Police and the sacked employee, while not identified officially, is believed to be a senior curator. An unnamed man has been interviewed by the Metropolitan Police over the missing items, but no arrests have been made.

“The Board of Trustees has accepted the resignation of Hartwig Fischer as Director. He has acted honourably in confronting the mistakes that have been made. No one has ever doubted Hartwig’s integrity, his dedication to his job, or his love for the museum,” said Osborne, also former UK Chancellor, in a statement.

“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,” he said.

The museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, is also said to have “agreed to voluntarily step back from his normal duties” until the independent review into the thefts at the museum has concluded.

The items believed to be involved in the theft probe dated from the 15th Century BC to the 19th Century AD and had been kept primarily in storage for academic and research purposes, the museum has previously said.

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