Questions raised about role of British Museum trustees as thefts crisis progresses

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The crisis following the theft of 2,000 antiquities at the British Museum (BM) raises fundamental questions about how one of the world’s greatest museums is run and overseen.

So far the overwhelming blame has been placed on the former director Hartwig Fischer and his deputy Jonathan Williams. They were in charge when Greek and Roman gems were stolen. More than two years after first being warned about the theft, they eventually dismissed Peter Higgs, a long-standing senior curator who had been promoted to acting keeper.

But questions also arise about the role of the museum trustees, led by the chair George Osborne, a former chancellor of the exchequer, who succeeded Richard Lambert in October 2021. Were the trustees monitoring the situation—and did they act promptly? And what about the government’s Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS), the BM’s major funder? In 2022-23, the DCMS provided £47.8m in revenue and £20m in capital grant-in-aid.

The procedures for dealing with a possible theft by a senior employee appear to have been woefully ineffective. In 2021, both Williams and Fischer were warned about the theft by an outsider, the Danish gems expert Ittai Gradel, but they rejected the allegations, saying no losses had occurred. Osborne was warned in October 2022. Yet it was not until January this year that the DCMS says it was informed a theft was likely and a police inquiry was initiated.

Seven months later, the DCMS secretary of state, Lucy Frazer, made ill-advised comments. In the BM’s 28 July announcement on Fischer’s intention to retire, she was quoted as thanking him for “sterling leadership”, saying that he was leaving a “valuable legacy”. But Fischer’s lack of judgement means the museum faces its most damaging crisis since the Second World War. By July the BM had worked out that antiquities had gone missing and the DCMS had been informed.

The Art Newspaper has looked into the sequence of events at an official level. We understand that the DCMS was informed in January 2023 that the BM was looking into possible irregularities in certain collections. As we reported last month, under the BM’s management agreement with the DCMS, “all cases of attempted, suspected or proven fraud, irrespective of the amount involved, must be reported by the British Museum to the department as soon as they are discovered”. Even “suspected” fraud needs to be disclosed and the term “fraud” includes theft. It now appears that the DCMS was informed earlier, in 2021, of allegations that stolen items were being sold online, but was also assured that these claims had no substance.

Accounts exclude any mention of the thefts

Questions arise about the BM’s 2022-23 annual report and accounts, which was laid before parliament on 11 July this year. Signed by Fischer and Osborne, there is no direct mention of the theft in its 80 pages.

A museum spokesperson suggested that there is an indirect reference, citing a section in the report (p.34): “In response to findings that some controls were not operating as expected, the BM is focusing its efforts on scrutinising areas of perceived higher risk and, in particular, is concentrating on implementing agreed changes to collection management and security procedures and processes, safeguarding, and maintaining cyber security.”

The accounts are always examined by the government’s auditor general, who signed off the BM report on 6 July. He asked the BM’s management if there were “any instances of non-compliance with laws and regulations” or if the museum had knowledge of “any actual, suspected, or alleged fraud”. A BM spokesperson says that the auditor general’s office was informed about the theft (although we do not know precisely when this was done), but he did not make reference to it, apparently following a police request.

The BM spokesperson added: “The specific ‘thefts’ would not be classed as a risk but as an event. Events with a financial impact are disclosed in the appropriate accounting period.” The accounting year ran until 31 March and the report adds that there were “no reportable events” from then until July. However, it was last October that Osborne was warned about the theft.

What happens next? On 16 August, Osborne announced that an independent review was being set up to make recommendations for future security arrangements and to kickstart “a vigorous programme to recover the missing items”. The review’s detailed terms of reference are not yet known. A museum spokesperson says that the BM will publish the “recommendations”, although that leaves open whether the full report will be released.

The review is being chaired by Lucy D’Orsi, the chief constable of the British Transport Police, and Nigel Boardman, a BM trustee from 2012 to 2020. Some concerns are being expressed about the review’s independence, in view of Boardman’s recent former role as a trustee and member of the trustees’ audit committee.

A recovery operation is underway. On 26 September, the BM announced that it had launched a webpage giving details of the kind of material that is missing, in order to raise awareness and increase the chances of objects being retrieved. It also reported that 60 items had so far been recovered, with 300 more “due to be returned imminently”. The museum is working with an international taskforce—comprising experts from the UK, mainland Europe and the US—to try to recover the rest.

An example from the BM’s new webpage: Late Bronze Age finger-ring, from Enkomi (Cyprus), 1450-1200BC

© Trustees of the British Museum

The police investigation into Higgs continues. Although this may lead to an arrest, charges and a court case, we should stress that so far it remains only an inquiry. His son Greg told the media: “I don’t think it [his departure] was fair. I don’t think there is even anything missing as far as I’m aware.”

The crisis will have severe long-term implications. The masterplan for the complete restoration of the museum building and full redisplay of the collection was due to be announced this autumn. It is expected to take decades and cost many hundreds of millions of pounds. The launch of the masterplan is now likely to be delayed until next year.

The BM also faces a growing series of restitution claims, with claimants arguing that these objects are not safe at the museum. These include claims for the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes. In the short term, claimants are bound to become more vociferous, but senior museum staff will have less time to deal with claims, because of the need to deal with the aftermath of the theft. An interim director may also feel that restitution questions would be better left to the incoming full director.

Since the sudden departure of Fischer and Williams on 25 August, two interim appointments have been made. Mark Jones, a former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum, is the new interim director. Carl Heron, the museum’s director of scientific research, is now his deputy.

Meanwhile the process of searching for a new director and possible deputy starts this autumn. The director, who will probably come from outside the BM, is unlikely to take up their position until the middle of 2024. Whoever is chosen will face a challenging task to restore the BM’s tarnished reputation.

One prominent insider told us that any highly qualified candidate would want strong assurances from the trustees that they really mean business over reforms: “The candidate will be interviewing the museum, not the other way round.

Timeline of the British Museum thefts crisis

The story of the thefts stretches back nearly a decade

Photo: lemanieh

2014

The Danish antique gem specialist and dealer Ittai Gradel begins acquiring antiquities that he later realises came from the British Museum (BM). Richard Lambert becomes chair of the BM trustees.

2015

3 December Gradel finds an engraved gem, apparently from the BM, on eBay. He privately suspects that other items coming onto the market could be from the BM collection.

2016

April The German art historian Hartwig Fischer takes over as BM director from Neil MacGregor.

August Gradel finds a chalcedony cameo fragment from the BM on eBay. It apparently disappears from eBay the next day, and is subsequently found in a museum strong room. Gradel also identifies a glass gem, which he purchases from the same seller and later realises is probably from the BM’s Townley Collection.

2021

1 March Gradel warns BM deputy director Jonathan Williams—naming Peter Higgs, a Greece and Rome department curator, as the probable seller.

Spring Higgs is promoted from curator to acting keeper of Greece and Rome, on the departure of Lesley Fitton.

Early June Gradel follows up with Fischer, having received no response from Williams.

July At around this time the BM notifies the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) that a claim of museum objects being offered for sale online has been judged false, following an internal museum investigation.

12 July Williams responds to Gradel that “the objects are all accounted for and with no suggestion of any wrong-doing on behalf of any member of museum staff”.

3 October Osborne takes over from Lambert as chair of the BM trustees.

2022

July Osborne promises that the BM’s masterplan for the building and its displays will be published “later this year [2022]” (it still remains unpublished).

Late August Osborne holds talks with the Greek prime minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis about lending some of the Parthenon Marbles in return for reciprocal loans of antiquities from Greece.

October Again naming Higgs, Gradel writes to warn BM trustee Paul Ruddock of thefts from the collection. Ruddock promptly forwards the message to Osborne.

October Ruddock responds to Gradel to say that Fischer had written to Osborne stating that “the case has been thoroughly investigated”, with “no evidence to substantiate the allegations. The three objects are in the collection”.

2 November Osborne promises that the masterplan for the building “will be published next spring”.

3 December BM press statement on “a new Parthenon Partnership” with Greece on the Marbles, presumably involving the partial return of the sculptures.

8 December BM trustees meet, although the theft was not discussed.

2023

January The Metropolitan Police are called in to investigate what is finally considered a theft.

January The BM informs the DCMS about possible irregularities in certain collections.

30 January Tom Harrison, from London’s Institute of Classical Studies, becomes keeper of Greece and Rome (his appointment had been made in 2022 and was unconnected to the theft). Higgs is therefore no longer acting keeper and becomes a normal curator.

31 January Osborne responds directly to Gradel, following a direct communication and demand for action, to let him know that he is taking his allegations seriously.

23 March BM trustees meet. The minutes merely record that “an updated document was circulated in response to an action point”, with Fischer and Williams later being requested to leave the meeting for a closed session of the trustees. Although trustees are told that some items had been stolen, the gravity of the situation is not explained.

Spring Disciplinary procedures are initiated against Higgs (this was not publicised).

29 June BM trustees meet. The published minutes are not yet available, but the theft and Fischer’s employment situation will have been the main focus.

Early July Higgs is dismissed from the BM staff.

11 July The BM’s Report and Accounts for 2022-23, signed off by Fischer and Osborne, is laid before Parliament. It includes no reference to the theft.

28 July Announcement that “after eight successful years at the helm of Britain’s most important cultural institution, Hartwig Fischer will leave his post in 2024”. Culture secretary Lucy Frazer thanks Fischer for his “sterling leadership” and leaving “a valuable legacy”.

16 August First public announcement regarding “missing, stolen and damaged items”, but with no mention of the individual who had been dismissed—a police investigation is underway and an independent inquiry is set up (led by Nigel Boardman and Lucy D’Orsi).

17 August The Daily Telegraph names Peter Higgs (who had been a Greece and Rome curator since 1993).

18 August Greek culture minister Lina Mendoni says that she is following the BM theft “very carefully”, in the light of their Parthenon Marbles claim.

23 August Fischer issues a personal statement, in which he says that “at every step my priority has been the care of the incredible British Museum collection”.

24 August Abba Isa Tijani, director of Nigeria’s National Commission for Museums and Monuments, calls for the restitution of Benin Bronzes.

25 August Fischer announces that he is to resign with immediate effect. A few hours later it is announced that his deputy, Williams, is to “step back”.

26 August Osborne, interviewed on BBC Radio 4, says that “around 2,000” objects are believed missing.

28 August The Global Times, which reflects Chinese government policy, calls for the return of their objects.

30 August Welsh nationalist leader Liz Saville Roberts calls for the return of the Mold Gold Cape.

30 August Carl Heron, director of the BM’s scientific department, is named interim deputy director.

2 September Mark Jones, a former Victoria and Albert Museum director (2001-11), is named interim director.

8 September Christos Tsirogiannis, a Greek academic specialist in looted antiquities, is appointed to help the BM research its collection.

26 September The BM launches a webpage dedicated to the recovery of objects. It also announces that 60 items have been recovered, with 300 more “due to be returned imminently”, and announces an international taskforce.

Additional reporting by Alison Cole

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