British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry

The deputy director who oversaw a botched investigation into thefts at the British Museum is leaving the institution, the BBC can reveal.

British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry
British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry

Dr Jonathan Williams had agreed to step back from his duties until the conclusion of an external review.

Its recommendations were published on Tuesday with no mention of Dr Williams.

Dr Ittai Gradel, the gem specialist who first alerted the deputy director about the thefts but says he was brushed off, said: “He should have gone long ago”.

He added: “This whole charade of stepping back from duties was pointless from the outset. It was immediately obvious to any observer that he had displayed incompetence in handling this on a level where the only appropriate response should be that he should lose his position.”

In February 2021, Dr Gradel emailed Jonathan Williams claiming that he had noticed three ancient gems belonging to the British Museum for sale on eBay.

He alleged to Dr Williams that the seller was a senior curator at the British Museum.

He added evidence including a PayPal receipt which contained the full name and address of the suspect.

Dr Williams did not contact Dr Gradel for further information. Instead, in emails seen by the BBC, he told him several months later that there had been an investigation and nothing untoward had taken place.

In fact, as the museum later discovered following a further audit, 2,000 items had been stolen or damaged from the museum storerooms, according to a report published yesterday.

These included Roman gems, ancient jewellery and fragments of pottery.

British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry
British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry

Dr Gradel told the BBC: “When I finally received the reply from Jonathan Williams, that all my allegations were false, that an investigation had been done, it had been finished, and that there was absolutely nothing to it.

“And that he furthermore refused to tell me anything about the results of that investigation. At that point, it was clear to me that these people were not up to their jobs. Someone had to do their jobs for them. And unfortunately, there was no one else to do it. But me at least in the first stage.”

Dr Gradel eventually successfully escalated his warnings to the trustee and chair George Osborne. The police were called in to investigate.

The museum would not give any details on the date of Dr Williams’ departure from the museum, nor whether he had gone voluntarily or was pushed.

British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry
British Museum deputy director to leave after thefts inquiry

When asked on Tuesday, if the deputy director would step down, chair of the museum George Osborne told the BBC he would not “come to instant judgements on those sorts of things”.

“It’s absolutely clear that when the museum was warned by Dr Gradel in 2021, the museum did not respond adequately to that warning,” Mr Osborne said. “If we had, we would have got on top of this a couple of years before we did. There are clearly very serious consequences for it.”

The BBC has contacted Dr Williams for comment.

The Metropolitan Police said a man was interviewed under caution in August and that a police investigation is ongoing.

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