Hartwig Fischer, since 2016 the director of the British Museum, has left his role at the London institution. He had earlier this summer announced his planned departure, in 2024. In the weeks that ensued, however, the museum become the focus of intense scrutiny owing to allegations that a staff member there was stealing priceless treasures from its storeroom and selling them on eBay for a comparative pittance. Fischer’s hasty exit comes just days after it was revealed that top British Museum brass, himself included, had been warned of the thefts in early 2021 but had seemingly done nothing about them until this past July.
That month, the institution fired Peter Higgs, a senior curator in the Greek and Roman antiquities department and an employee of three decades’ standing at the museum. Higgs has been charged with no wrongdoing, but looks to have some explaining to do in the wake of the discovery that at least one of the treasures being offered for sale by a pseudonymous eBay user could be traced through a PayPal portal to an X (formerly Twitter) account bearing his name.
Fischer said in a 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 had earlier accused Ittai Gradel, the art historian who first and repeatedly warned museum officials of the theft, of having withheld information regarding the larceny. He retracted those accusations, saying, “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’s apology came shortly after the publication of a Daily Mail article quoting Gradel as describing the now erstwhile director as an “idiot” living in “cloud cuckoo land.”
Shortly after Fischer announced his resignation, it was announced that the museum’s deputy director, Jonathan Williams, would temporarily relinquish his duties. Williams was revealed in multiple publications to have been the first high-level official to have been notified of the possible theft and sale of one of the museum’s artifacts.
The incident, described succinctly by The Guardian as an “own goal,” has caused tremendous damage to the British Museum’s reputation as a secure repository of ancient treasures from around the world. Since news of the thefts became public, Greece has stepped up its calls for the institution to return the Parthenon marbles, with the country’s minister of culture, Lina Mendoni telling Greek weekly To Vima that the trouble at the institution “reinforces the permanent and just demand of our country for the definitive return” of the contested artifacts. Earlier today, the Nigerian government demanded the museum repatriate the more than nine hundred Benin bronzes that it has thus far staunchly held onto, despite a chorus of voices calling for their return.
“It’s shocking to hear that the countries and museums that have been telling us that the Benin bronzes would not be secure in Nigeria, have thefts happening there,” Abba Isa Tijani, the director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, told England’s Sky News.