The outcome of the interim leadership arrangement at the British Museum is expected within days, the PA news agency understands, after the institution’s director Hartwig Fischer announced his resignation.
Mr Fischer leaves the London museum as it emerged last week that items from its collection were found to be “missing, stolen or damaged”, prompting a police investigation.
The German art historian said the situation facing the museum was “of the utmost seriousness” and that responsibility for the failure “must ultimately rest with the director”.
The museum’s board of trustees accepted his resignation, with former chancellor George Osborne – chairman of trustees – saying Mr Fischer had “acted honourably” and that “no-one has ever doubted Hartwig’s integrity, his dedication to his job, or his love for the museum”.
The museum said Mr Fischer would step down “with immediate effect”, but later clarified he would step down once an interim leadership arrangement was in place.
In a statement on Friday, Mr Fischer admitted that the museum “did not respond as comprehensively as it should have in response to warnings in 2021” about the stolen artefacts.
“Over the last few days I have been reviewing in detail the events around the thefts from the British Museum and the investigation into them,” he said.
“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.”
Ittai Gradel, an author, academic and antiquities dealer, had previously alerted the museum to some of the stolen items, and told PA that claims he had withheld information from the institution was an “outright lie”.
“I was explicit in my communication with the BM (British Museum) that I was entirely at their disposal for any further information or assistance they would require. They never contacted me,” he said.
In his statement Mr Fischer said he had “misjudged the remarks I made earlier this week about Dr Gradel”.
“I wish to express my sincere regret and withdraw those remarks,” he said.
He continued: “I have offered my resignation to the chairman of the trustees, and will step down as soon as the board have established an interim leadership arrangement. This will remain in place until a new director is chosen.
“The situation facing the museum is of the utmost seriousness. I sincerely believe it will come through this moment and emerge stronger, but sadly I have come to the conclusion that my presence is proving a distraction.
“That is the last thing I would want. Over the last seven years I have been privileged to work with some of the most talented and dedicated public servants.
“The British Museum is an amazing institution, and it has been the honour of my life to lead it.”
In July, Mr Fischer, who has been in the post since 2016, announced he would be stepping down next year.
In his own statement, Mr Osborne said: “Hartwig had already announced his intention to step down some weeks ago, so the process of finding a new permanent director is already under way.
“The Trustees will now establish an interim arrangement, ensuring that the museum has the necessary leadership to take it through this turbulent period as we learn the lessons of what went wrong, and use them to develop plans for a strong future.
“The Trustees also wish to thank the many many staff who work so hard for the museum and keep it running.
“I am clear about this: we are going to fix what has gone wrong. The museum has a mission that lasts across generations.
“We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”
Tim Loughton, the chairman of the all-party parliamentary group on the British Museum, said he was sad to hear of Mr Fischer’s resignation as director.
Speaking to Times Radio, the MP said Mr Fischer had been a “really innovative and excellent director” over the last seven years.
Mr Loughton said: “This news in the last couple of weeks has obviously been very damaging and it’s been embarrassing, and it’s been taken very seriously by the director of all the trustees of the British Museum.
“But they’re also acting with one hand behind their back because the police have specifically asked the museum not to give out more information whilst there’s a police investigation going on.
“So Hartwig hasn’t really been able to give his side of the story or more details, but he’s decided to clearly do what he thinks is the honourable thing and to offer his resignation today ahead of when he was due to be standing down next year anyway.”
Mr Fischer’s resignation comes after the Metropolitan Police confirmed to PA on Thursday that a man had been interviewed by officers in connection with the alleged thefts.
The force said that no arrests had been made and it would continue to work “closely” with the British Museum as inquiries continue.
An unnamed member of staff has been sacked and the British Museum is taking legal action.
It is understood that the items – which include gold jewellery, gems of semi-precious stones and glass – were taken before 2023 and over a “significant” period of time.