The Deputy Director Who Overlooked Thefts at the British Museum Has Stepped Down

"The museum did not respond adequately," admitted museum chair George Osborne. "There are clearly very serious consequences."

Dr Jonathan Williams, former deputy director of the British Museum. Photo: Stephan Schulz/picture alliance via Getty Images.

The deputy director of the British Museum, Jonathan Williams, has resigned, having failed to put an end to a spate of thefts after they were brought to his attention in early 2021. Williams had already volunteered to step back from his role at the end of August, and was temporarily replaced by Carl Heron, the museum’s director of scientific research.

This latest, more permanent move follows the conclusion of an independent review into the theft of around 1,500 artifacts from the British Museum, allegedly by an employee. It revealed that only 351 items have so far been returned and that a further 350 items in the collection had been damaged or defaced, with gold mounts and gems removed and likely unrecoverable.

Soon after the thefts were first made public in August, the suspect was identified as Peter Higgs, a senior curator of Greek and Roman art who had worked at the museum for decades. He allegedly sold some of the items on eBay, which is how his illicit activities came to the attention of dealer Ittai Gradel in 2016. Once Gradel had collected enough evidence, he presented his findings to Williams in February 2021.

The information he provided was substantiated by a Paypal receipt containing the suspect’s full name and address, according to the BBC. Nonetheless, Williams apparently told Gradel that no crime had taken place. Exasperated, the dealer got in touch with the museum’s chair George Osborne, who ordered a police investigation.

“It was immediately obvious to any observer that he had displayed incompetence in handling this,” Gradel told the BBC about Williams, adding that “the only appropriate response should be that he should lose his position.”

“It’s absolutely clear that when the museum was warned by Gradel in 2021, the museum did not respond adequately,” Osborne told the BBC. “If we had, we would have got on top of this a couple of years before we did. There are clearly very serious consequences for it.”

Higgs, who has consistently denied any wrongdoing, is refusing to cooperate with the search for the missing objects, according to the BBC.


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