Anonymous British Museum staff have told The Telegraph newspaper that the director of the museum, Hartwig Fischer, was forced to resign as a result of a series of alleged thefts from the museum, with calls for him to step down immediately.
Peter John Higgs, a prominent curator who was employed at the British Museum for 30 years, was identified in UK press reports as the person alleged to be responsible for stealing priceless artefacts from the museum’s collection. Higgs denies any wrongdoing.
However, The Art Newspaper has been informed that Fischer’s resignation was not connected to the thefts in spite of the timing of his resignation announcement last month (he is scheduled to leave in 2024). “There is a concern that it is perhaps convenient to conflate the two issues,” says a well-placed source.
George Osborne, the chair of the British Museum, said at the time: “[Fischer] has led the dedicated staff of the museum through difficult periods, such as the Covid lockdowns and today’s inflation pressures.”
According to the Telegraph, an independent investigation on the thefts has been handed correspondence dating back to February 2021. In this correspondence Jonathan Williams, the museum deputy director, was alerted to the thefts.
This information could place senior management and the chair and trustees of the museum under further scrutiny. A British Museum spokesperson told The Art Newspaper previously: “We won’t be commenting further on this matter as it is the subject of a police investigation.”
A spokesperson for the British Museum told The Telegraph that it was “categorically wrong” to suggest there was any link between Fischer’s departure and the thefts, and “categorically” rejected any suggestion of a cover-up.
The stolen objects, including a piece of Roman jewellery offered with a minimum price of £40, reportedly appeared on the auction and shopping website eBay as early as 2016. Crucially, it is also unclear if all of the missing items had been catalogued. Meanwhile, other museum sources confirm that theft of small objects from museums, particularly gems, has long been a concern and the question of security in museums will now be forced to the top of the agenda.