Hartwig Fischer, who had led the museum since 2016, said that the museum’s failure to respond to earlier warnings “must ultimately rest with the director.”
Just days after the British Museum announced that it had fired an employee who was suspected of looting its storerooms and selling items on eBay, the museum’s director announced Friday that he was resigning, effective immediately.
Hartwig Fischer, a German art historian who had led the world renowned institution since 2016, said in a news release that he was leaving the post at a time “of the utmost seriousness.”
Mr. Fischer said that it was “evident” that under his leadership the museum did not adequately respond to warnings that a curator may be stealing items. “The responsibility for that failure must ultimately rest with the director,” Mr. Fischer said.
The crisis became public when the British Museum announced last week that items had been stolen from its collection. The museum did not say how many items were taken, but said that the missing, stolen or damaged pieces included “gold jewelry and “gems of semi-precious stones and glass” dating from as far back as the 15th century B.C.
Ever since, a stream of revelations around the museum’s handling of the thefts undermined Mr. Fischer’s position. On Tuesday, The New York Times and the BBC published emails showing that he had downplayed concerns raised by Ithai Gradel, a Denmark-based antiquities dealer, about potential thefts.
Mr. Fischer, in an email to a trustee in October 2022, said “the case has been thoroughly investigated” adding “there is no evidence to substantiate the allegations.”
Mr. Fischer initially defended his response, saying in a statement Wednesday that his handling of the allegations had been robust and that the museum had taken the warnings “incredibly seriously.” The extent of the problem only became clear later, after the museum undertook “a full audit” of its collections, he added.
His defense did little to quell criticism in Britain. On Wednesday, The Times of London wrote that the thefts were “a national disgrace, calling into question the museum’s own claims for its stewardship of cultural treasures, and for which it needs to give a full accounting.”
In announcing his resignation, Mr. Fischer said that it was clear 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.”
He was already planning to leave the institution. In July Mr. Fischer announced he would leave the British Museum in 2024, after eight years in the role as director. But the crisis has brought that date far closer.
The museum would “come through this moment and emerge stronger,” Mr. Fischer said, “but sadly I have come to the conclusion that my presence is proving a distraction. That is the last thing I would want.”
George Osborne, the museum chair, said in the release that the board had accepted Mr. Fischer’s decision. “I am clear about this: we are going to fix what has gone wrong,” Mr. Osborne said. “The museum has a mission that lasts across generations. We will learn, restore confidence and deserve to be admired once again.”