LONDON (AP) — The British Museum was alerted more than two years ago to a possible theft or disappearance of valuables when an art historian became suspicious of items for sale on eBay.
But museum director Hartwig Fischer said on Friday he had not taken the whistleblower’s warning seriously enough and announced his resignation as investigators try to determine what happened to hundreds of missing pieces, including gold jewelry, semi-precious stones and antiques dating back to the 15th century BC
“It is apparent that the British Museum has not responded as fully as it should have to the 2021 warnings and the issue which has now fully emerged,” Fischer said in a statement. “The responsibility for this failure ultimately lies with the director.”
The museum fired a staff member more than a week ago and said legal action would be taken against the person. London’s Metropolitan Police are investigating and the museum has ordered an independent security review as well as a “vigorous program to recover missing items”.
Most of the items were small items held in storage and none had been on recent display, the museum said.
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The 264-year-old British Museum is a major tourist attraction in London, attracting visitors from all over the world. Its collection includes the Rosetta Stone which revealed the language of ancient Egypt, scrolls containing 12th-century Chinese poetry, and masks created by the indigenous peoples of Canada.
The museum has also caused controversy because it has resisted calls from communities around the world to return historically significant objects acquired during the time of the British Empire. The most famous of these conflicts concerns the marble Parthenon sculptures in Greece and Bronzes from Benin from West Africa.
“We want to say to the British Museum that they can no longer say that Greek (cultural) heritage is more protected in the British Museum,” Despina Koutsoumba, director of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, told the BBC this week.
Fischer’s announcement included an apology to the whistleblower, Ittai Gradel, an Anglo-Danish historian and art dealer.
Gradel told The Associated Press he became suspicious after buying one of three items a seller had listed for sale on eBay. Gradel traced the two items he did not purchase back to the museum. The object he purchased was not listed in the museum’s catalog, but he discovered that it belonged to a man who entrusted his entire collection to the museum in 1814.
Gradel said he found the identity of the seller through PayPal and that it was the person from the museum who had since been fired. Gradel said 69 other items he purchased from the same person were then “guilty by association”.
Gradel said Fischer made the right choice in stepping down and he accepted his apology. But he said assistant manager Jonathan Williams should also step down, adding that Williams had assured him that a thorough investigation had revealed no wrongdoing.
The museum announced on Friday that Williams would step down during the independent review.
“He basically told me to vent and mind my business,” Gradel said. “I don’t understand how someone in charge of a museum could see this evidence without all the alarm bells going off immediately.”
On Wednesday, Fischer released a statement saying the museum had taken the allegations seriously in 2021. But he said concerns had only been raised about a small number of objects and said it was frustrating to learn that Gradel, whom he did not name, had “many more items in his possession”.
Gradel said it was a “straightforward lie” to have withheld information from the museum and said it appeared Fischer never read the documents he sent. He said he offered all the help they needed and they never contacted him.
“I also misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr. Gradel,” Fischer said Friday. “I wish to express my sincere regrets and withdraw these remarks.”
Fischer, a German art historian, said he would leave as soon as a temporary ruler could be appointed.
George Osborne, chairman of the museum’s board, said the board had accepted Fischer’s resignation and that he had acted “honourably in dealing with the mistakes that were made.”
“I’m clear on this: we’re going to fix what went wrong,” Osborne said. “The museum has a mission that spans generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired again.
The museum had announced that it would take legal action against the fired staff member.
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