British Museum Director Hartwig Fischer Has Stepped Down, Hastening His Previously Planned Departure as Theft Scandal Grows

"The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director," Fischer said in the surprise announcement. 

Hartwig Fischer. Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images.

Embattled British Museum director Hartwig Fischer has announced that he will resign, rather than wait until next year as he previously said.  

The move comes just nine days after the museum revealed that valuable items—including pieces of gold jewelry and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century B.C.E. to the 19th century C.E.—had been stolen from its collection.  

At the time, scrutiny was directed toward the employee believed to be responsible for the thefts, later identified as senior curator Peter John Higgs. But scandalous details that have emerged since then show that more than 1,500 objects went missing over the course of years while Fischer and others—who were alerted to Higgs’s actions in 2021—apparently failed to act.

“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,” Fischer said in his resignation statement. “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.”  

Fischer also apologized to the Dutch antiquities dealer Ittai Gradel, the whistleblower who alerted the museum after spotting objects from its collection on eBay. Earlier this week, the director criticized Gradel for not revealing the full scope of missing pieces in 2021. “I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks,” Fischer said. 

In response, Gradel told the BBC that “it’s the right thing to do. I think he should have done it sooner, but I do accept his apology.” 

An external view of the British Museum on February 13, 2023. Photo by Leon Neal/Getty Images.

In July, Fischer—the museum’s director of eight years and its first non-British leader since 1866— announced plans to step down in 2024. The surprise decision was framed as a passing of the torch: “It is now time to pass on leadership to continue creating a truly global museum whilst remaining at the heart of Britain’s cultural life,” he said at the time. 

But in recent days, museum staffers have speculated that the announcement was related to the thefts, and calls for Fischer’s immediate resignation intensified both within and outside the institution.  

“The situation facing the museum is of the utmost seriousness,” the outgoing director continued in his statement. “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.”  

British Museum chair George Osborne said the board of trustees had accepted Hartwig’s resignation. “He has acted honorably 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.” 

Meanwhile, the museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, will “voluntarily step back from his normal duties until the independent review into the thefts at the museum has concluded,” the museum said in a statement. “This will happen with immediate effect.”

The search for a new permanent director is already underway, Osborne said. In the meantime, the board will “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,” he added.  

George Osborne and Hartwig Fischer attend the British Museum trustees dinner at the British Museum on November 1, 2022 in London, England. Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images for the British Museum.

George Osborne and Hartwig Fischer attend the British Museum trustees dinner at the British Museum on November 1, 2022 in London, England. Photo by David M. Benett/Getty Images for the British Museum.

Gradel has said that he purchased about 70 museum artifacts on eBay—often at prices well below their actual worth—before understanding where they came from. Later, he recognized pieces from the Townley collection of Greco-Roman relics given to the British Museum in the early 19th century. He also learned that the eBay seller’s profile linked to a bank account in the name of Peter Higgs. 

In February 2021, Gradel shared his findings with the museum. In response, the institution’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, told the dealer that “there was no suggestion of any wrongdoing.” Emails show that Fischer was made aware of Gradel’s allegations around this time too. At one point, the dealer accused Williams and Fischer of “sweeping it all under the carpet.” 

“I am clear about this: We are going to fix what has gone wrong,” Osborne concluded in today’s announcement. “The museum has a mission that lasts across generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.” 

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