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British Museum director resigns over handling of thefts


LONDON — The director of the British Museum announced his resignation on Friday, accepting blame for the mishandling of thefts of treasures from its collection.

Director Hartwig Fischer said in a statement that the 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.”

The British Museum — one of the most visited museums in the world — acknowledged last week that items were missing, stolen or damaged from its collection, including “gold jewelry and gems of semiprecious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD.” The majority of those items had not been on display but rather kept in a storeroom and used for academic and research purposes.

When contacted by The Washington Post, the museum said it would not confirm how many items were taken. But the Telegraph newspaper said it was the museum’s “biggest ever” theft and, citing unnamed sources, said that more than 1,500 items were stolen.

The museum fired an employee last week over the thefts and said it intends to pursue legal action. The Metropolitan Police are also investigating.

British Museum fires worker over ‘missing, stolen and damaged’ treasures

Fischer, a German art historian and the first non-British director of the museum since the 1860s, announced earlier this summer that he would be stepping down next year. But his departure will now be hastened. The museum initially said on Friday that he would be stepping down with immediate effect, but then said he would leave once a successor was found.

In his statement, Fischer said he also regretted having suggested that Ittai Gradel — the British-Danish antiquities dealer who first alerted the museum to suspected thefts two years ago — had impeded the investigation by withholding information.

Gradel told British media that he had shown the museum evidence that items were being sold on eBay, often for a fraction of their value. The Telegraph reported that one semiprecious stone, estimated to be worth up to £50,000 ($63,000), was offered on eBay for a minimum price of £40 ($50), but no one appeared to bid on it.

Gradel told the Guardian newspaper that many individual items hadn’t been registered in the museum’s records, making them difficult to trace and recover.

The British Museum has more than 8 million items in its collection.

The museum has come under increasing pressure in recent years to return some of its contested items to their countries of origin. The most prominent case is that of the Elgin marbles, or Parthenon Sculptures, which were taken from Greece in the early 19th Century.

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Greek officials said the thefts from the museum’s collection raised questions about the security protocols. They renewed calls for Britain to return the marbles.


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