The inside job: what the thefts mean for the British Museum’s future plans for the collection

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The British Museum is now facing its most serious crisis for decades. On 28 July came the surprise announcement that the museum’s director, Hartwig Fischer, is to “leave his post” next year. Then, on 16 August, there was the shocking news that an undisclosed number of items, including ancient jewellery, had been stolen, with an unnamed member of staff being dismissed.

A day later, the press revealed that it was Peter Higgs, a trusted senior Greek and Roman curator, who had worked at the museum for over 30 years. In 2021-22 he served as acting keeper (head) of the department, meaning that he was actually promoted after the first allegations had been made—and he continued to head the department after further evidence was given to the director. George Osborne, the chairman of the trustees, has said that the museum has now “used all the disciplinary powers available to us to deal with the individual we believe to be responsible”.

On 24 August a Metropolitan Police spokesperson said: “A man [unidentified] has been interviewed by investigating officers. No arrests have been made. We have worked closely with the British Museum and will continue to do so. Inquiries continue.”

A recent report in The Daily Telegraph cites an uncorroborated source who claims that more than 1,500 objects—possibly “closer to 2,000”—have gone missing or have been destroyed. The items are said to be worth “millions of pounds”. They were in a museum store, not on display, and were taken over a period of years.

All this comes at the worst possible moment, since the museum is preparing to launch its masterplan for the complete refurbishment of its building and a full redisplay of its collection. This much-needed project will cost many hundreds of millions of pounds and is unlikely to be completed until after 2050.

Publication of the masterplan has been delayed on several occasions, and until Fischer’s replacement arrives—perhaps next summer—the museum will in practice have a leadership lacking full authority. Fischer’s exit also comes at a time when restitution issues are highly controversial, particularly over the Parthenon Marbles and the Benin Bronzes.

Serious questions

Meanwhile, the museum must deal with the immediate issue of the theft. Serious questions are already being asked about why Fischer, his deputy Jonathan Williams, and the museum chair George Osborne and his predecessor, Richard Lambert, apparently dismissed allegations of theft in 2021 and 2022, and failed to properly investigate. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) told The Art Newspaper that it “was informed in January [2023] that the museum was looking into possible irregularities in certain collections”.

Fischer, a German citizen and previously the director of Dresden State Art Collections, took over as director of the British Museum in April 2016, following the departure of Neil MacGregor. His main task was to develop a comprehensive masterplan for the building and its redisplay.

A year after his arrival, Fischer gave an interview to The Art Newspaper, setting out his vision. Admitting that for visitors to the museum “it is not easy to get a comprehensive understanding” of key cultures, he pointed out as an example that Egyptian sculptures are on the ground floor and mummies on the upper level. Some geographical areas, particularly Oceania, Australia and Latin America, are “partially or nearly wholly absent” in the presentation. Fischer wanted a long-term project to refresh and rethink the displays, to present a more global rather than a European and Mediterranean view of culture.

In his interview, Fischer suggested that much would change during his directorship but, more than seven years on, the masterplan has still not been published. Progress proved slower than anticipated, exacerbated by the start of Covid-19 restrictions in March 2020 and, more recently, by the theft.

The announcement of Fischer’s departure followed a closed session of the trustees’ meeting on 29 June, when the regular annual evaluation took place on the director’s objectives and remuneration. But the meeting was dominated by a confidential discussion about the theft, resulting in the departure statement six weeks later. Among the trustees is Mary Beard, a distinguished classicist, who must have been extremely disturbed about losses from the Department of Greece and Rome.

On 16 August it was publicly announced that items were “missing, stolen or damaged”, including “gold jewellery and gems of semi-precious stones and glass dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD”.

The statement added: “A member of staff has been dismissed, and the Museum will now be taking legal action against the individual. The matter is also under investigation by the Economic Crime Command of the Metropolitan Police.” Our understanding is that Higgs was dismissed in early July.

When the loss was first announced on 16 August a museum spokesperson stated that “in the interest of working alongside the Metropolitan Police, we will not be commenting any further on this case at this stage.”

However, a week later Fischer did make additional comments: “When allegations were brought to us in 2021 we took them incredibly seriously, and immediately set up an investigation. In 2022 we embarked on a full audit – which revealed a bigger problem. I reported my concerns to the trustees, and together we agreed to call in the police. At every step my priority has been the care of the incredible British Museum collection.”

The original allegations were reported to the museum’s deputy director Jonathan Williams in 2021

Photo: Mattis Kaminer/Alamy Stock Photo

Independent review

An independent review has now been set up, led by Nigel Boardman—a lawyer and British Museum trustee until 2017—and Lucy D’Orsi, chief constable of the British Transport Police. They will “kickstart—and support—a vigorous programme to recover the missing items”, as well as making recommendations for future security arrangements.

Among its tasks will be to examine the museum’s written “Procedure for the Reporting of Unlocated and Lost Objects”, to see whether it was properly implemented—and whether it should be reworded to deal more carefully with suspected losses.

The allegations about the theft were first made by the Danish gem expert Ittai Gradel, who reported the matter to Williams in February 2021 and four months later to Fischer. On a matter of this gravity, the museum chairperson (then Richard Lambert) presumably should have been informed, since ownership of the collection is vested with the trustees.

After Gradel’s concerns were seemingly largely ignored by the museum, he wrote in October 2022 to Osborne, who had taken over as chairperson in October 2021. Gradel was then told that “there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations”.

It might have been thought that by this time the DCMS, which is the museum’s main funder, should have been informed. Under the “Management Agreement”, the museum must have “effective controls to prevent fraud and theft” and has a duty to report to the DCMS “all cases of attempted, suspected or proven fraud… as soon as they are discovered.” But it was only in January 2023 that DCMS was informed, although it had surely been suspected earlier.

It comes as a surprise that Osborne stated in the 16 August theft announcement that he and his fellow trustees only “learnt earlier this year that items of the collection had been stolen”. Osborne had been warned about the theft earlier, by October 2022.

In January 2023 Tom Harrison arrived to take over from Higgs, then acting keeper, as the head of the Department of Greece and Rome. Harrison has therefore been thrust into helping to deal with the theft and its damaging ramifications for his department.

Unusually, no details of the items lost have been released. Normally photographs of stolen items are published after a museum theft, to alert the trade and public, thereby increasing the chances of a recovery. There may be special factors that would make it imprudent to do so in the British Museum case, but it seems more likely that the curators are simply uncertain about what exactly has gone because of a lack of comprehensive records. The few identified items could be the tip of the iceberg.

Although the theft is now being investigated by the Metropolitan Police, it should be stressed that no one has yet been arrested or charged, suggesting that the situation is complex. Higgs’s 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.”

Osborne said in the announcement of the theft: “Our priority is now threefold: first, to recover the stolen items; second, to find out what, if anything, could have been done to stop this; and third, to do whatever it takes, with investment in security and collection records, to make sure this doesn’t happen again.”

Missing masterplan

The theft will undoubtedly have a negative impact on progress with the masterplan, which until last year had been dubbed the “Rosetta Project”. (As The Art Newspaper reported in May 2023, this name was quietly dropped because of Egyptian restitution calls for the Rosetta Stone.)

In July 2022 Osborne stated in the museum’s annual report that details about the masterplan would be published “later this year”. In November he announced: “Three weeks ago the trustee body agreed to a masterplan that will see the complete reimagination of the British Museum. The details will be published next spring.”

Spring then passed and the masterplan “will be published this autumn”, according to the 28 July statement on Fischer’s departure. One can only speculate, but Fischer and Osborne may well have felt that this summer would have been an inauspicious moment to launch the project and its massive fundraising campaign.

The masterplan will be highly ambitious because of the sheer size of the museum’s Bloomsbury building and its enormous collection (with just over 50,000 objects on display). The announcement on Fischer’s departure says that this will take “several decades” and be a “multigenerational project”.

This is likely to be the largest UK museum venture in the first half of this century. At least in the short term, raising funds is now likely to prove even more challenging. The controversies over Sackler and BP have emphasised the sensitivities that come with corporate funds; Covid-19 has made fundraising more difficult; and Putin’s invasion of Ukraine rules out most potential Russian donors.

Osborne has been hoping for government financial support for the masterplan, in the form of a one-off grant. Discussions on this have proved slow and the March trustee minutes, obtained by The Art Newspaper under the Freedom of Information Act, refer to “the challenges around the release of government funding and the related risk”.

Although no one could be more knowledgeable about government finances than Osborne, a former Chancellor of the Exchequer (2010-16), the Treasury will be reluctant to support the museum until the theft issue has been satisfactorily resolved.

Potential private and corporate donors are also likely to be concerned about supporting a museum that allowed its collection to be threatened. It will therefore be difficult to begin serious fundraising until the independent review into security has been completed—and any necessary reforms introduced.

Whatever the timing of the masterplan announcement, Fischer will not now be responsible for its delivery. That will have to essentially await the arrival of his successor, possibly next summer.

Following the masterplan announcement, an international competition will be launched to select an architect. The first area of the museum to be tackled is likely to be the western galleries on the ground floor, which at present display Egyptian, Assyrian and Greek antiquities.

Left: George Osborne, chair of the British Museum’s trustees, claims he was only made aware of the thefts this year, but a gem expert wrote to him with concerns in October 2022 / Right: the thefts are likely to strengthen the resolve of the Greek government to push for the return of the Parthenon Marble

George Osborne: PA Images/Alamy Stock Photo. Marbles: Clem Rutter

Parthenon implications

Another long-standing issue that remains unresolved is the Parthenon Marbles, where a gulf may have opened up between Fischer and Osborne. Last February Osborne suggested that a loan partnership might be negotiated with Greek museums: “There is a way forward where the sculptures could be seen both in London and in Athens, and that will be a win-win for Greece and for us.”

Fischer has been less vocal about the Marbles, seemingly sharing the vision of his predecessor, MacGregor: a collection of and for the world, to be kept together in perpetuity. Under the British Museum Act of 1963, de-accessioning is normally prohibited. Fischer has generally put less emphasis on restitution and more on international collaboration and loans. For him, the masterplan represents an opportunity to make the museum more of a global institution, “through dialogue”.

Progress on the Marbles has been slow and no doubt the theft will strengthen the resolve of the Greek side. Lina Mendoni, the culture minister, has already said that the controversy over the stolen items means there are questions over “the credibility of the museum”. And that the ongoing furore “reinforces the permanent and just demand of our country for the reunification of the Parthenon Marbles at the Acropolis Museum in Athens”, she added.

The British Museum’s other major restitution issue is the Benin Bronzes. Progress has again been slow, due partly to the delicate question of whether any loans should be to the Nigerian state or the Benin oba (king). It now seems that the Nigerian state may cede this privilege to the oba.

In terms of media coverage of the museum during Fischer’s period, the question of BP sponsorship has loomed large. The energy company’s long-term sponsorship agreement came to an end earlier this year and was not renewed, probably by mutual agreement. Questions are still being raised over whether the BP Lecture Theatre, opened in 2000, should be renamed.

Interestingly, Fischer says that after leaving he hopes to work on the issue of museums and climate change, suggesting that he personally feels strongly about the importance of the subject, even if not sharing the views of the protesters’ aims and tactics. He has also pushed for the British Museum to become greener, using more sustainable energy sources.

In retrospect, Fischer’s principal long-term achievement is likely to be seen as the creation of the British Museum’s new storage facility, replacing its existing one at Blythe House, in west London. Built with £50m of government money, it is 40 miles away in Shinfield, just south of Reading. To be known as the British Museum Archaeological and Research Collection (BM_ARC), it is now expected to open late next year, a few months after Fischer’s departure.

And what are Fischer’s personal plans? In the departure announcement he commented: “I am excited about the next phase of my career, moving beyond the institutional framework of a single museum to engage in the rescue and preservation of cultural heritage in times of climate crisis, conflict, war, and violence”.

Recruitment for Fischer’s successor will begin in the next few weeks, following the next trustees’ meeting in early October. The search will be international, and the British Museum could well end up being headed by another European. The new director’s main task will be to ensure that security has been tightened, paving the way to move forward with the masterplan.

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