Former chancellor George Osborne has issued an apology to the nation and blamed “groupthink” for the scandal of artefacts stolen from the British Museum.
Mr Osborne, the chairman of the British Museum’s trustees, said some of the items had been recovered, but conceded that as many as 2,000 may have been stolen from its vaults.
Blaming what he called “groupthink” for the refusal of the museum’s senior management to face up to the scale of the scandal until now, Mr Osborne said: “On behalf of the British Museum, I want to apologise for what has happened.
“We believe we’ve been the victim of thefts over a long period of time and, frankly, more could have been done to prevent them.
“But I promise you this: it is a mess that we are going to clear up. I can tell you today that we’ve already started to recover some of the stolen items.”
Mr Osborne spoke after the British Museum’s director Hartwig Fischer resigned and his deputy “stepped back” from his duties over their failure to uncover the theft of objects, despite years of warnings from whistleblowers.
Mr Fischer announced that he was quitting his role as director after seven years because the museum “did not respond as comprehensively” as it should have done when presented with a dossier of evidence in 2021.
Three hours later his deputy, Jonathan Williams, said he had agreed to “voluntarily step back from his normal duties” with immediate effect until an independent review into the thefts.
Mr Osborne said the review will look into “what has happened not just in 2021, but for the many years before then, into how come the museum missed some of the signals that could have been picked up”, not least when an antiquities dealer alerted them to the thefts.
The former Cabinet minister said the estimate of 2,000 items stolen was “a very provisional figure,” but added: “We have started to recover some of the stolen items, which is a silver lining to a dark cloud.”
The museum is working with the art loss register and members of the antiquarian community to obtain the return of some of the items, Mr Osborne said, adding that security has been stepped up around museum storerooms.
He said the artefacts stolen were “small items of jewellery, gems, bits of gold that were not on public display”.
Mr Osborne denied there had been a deliberate cover up by museum management, but conceded that there had been a refusal to listen to warnings about what was happening.
He told BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme: “I don’t myself believe there was a sort of deliberate cover-up, although the review may find that to be the case.
“But was there some potential groupthink in the museum at the time, at the very top of the museum, that just couldn’t believe that an insider was stealing things, couldn’t believe that one of the members of staff were doing this? Yes, that’s very possible.”
Mr Osborne added that the scandal over the stolen artefacts has harmed the British Museum’s international image.
“It’s certainly been damaging to the British Museum’s reputation. I think that’s sort of stating the obvious and that’s why I’m apologising on behalf of the museum,” he said.
“I would say lots of large museums around the world are potentially victims to this kind of theft. That’s not an excuse. It’s just an observation.
“Our responsibility now is to make sure we really have learned the lessons so that this kind of thing is much harder and much less likely to happen in the future.”
Broaden your horizons with award-winning British journalism. Try The Telegraph free for 1 month, then enjoy 1 year for just $9 with our US-exclusive offer.