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British Museum director George Osborne has pledged to speed up the compilation of records for all of the institution’s collections as the treasure theft crisis escalates.

Osborne acknowledged on Saturday that as many as 2,000 items had been stolen or missing and that the museum had failed to act on warnings that items would be available for sale online in 2021.

The former chancellor said some at the British Museum may have thought it inconceivable at the time for colleagues to steal items, but added: “I don’t think there was a cover-up.”

Osborne confirmed that the British Museum did not fully register all items in its collection and promised to speed up the process.

“People who know about unregistered content have a big advantage in removing some of it,” he told the BBC’s “Today” programme. A staff member was fired as a result of the incident.

British Museum director Hartwig Fisher resigned on Friday over his response to the theft, acknowledging the “extremely serious” situation facing the institution.

Osborne said the museum had been a victim of theft for some time and confirmed that deputy director Jonathan Williams had resigned pending an independent investigation.

Fisher, who has been director since 2016, said the British Museum had “not responded as comprehensively as it should have” after being warned about the theft.

The matter has developed into a full-blown crisis for the British Museum, which has been accused of not being a reliable custodian of treasures brought to London from other countries.

The museum has confirmed that some “small items” were among the stolen items, including “gold jewellery, semi-precious and glass gemstones dating from the 15th century BC to the 19th century AD”.

Fisher has come under fire for his handling of a 2021 warning from antiques dealer and academic Ittai Gradel that museum collections have been stolen and sold online.

Earlier this week, Fisher issued a statement claiming that Gradel withhold information In 2021, he only informed the British Museum of concerns about “a small number of objects”.

Gradel responded that the claim was an “outright lie,” adding: “I am fully willing to provide them with any further information or assistance they need. They have never contacted me.”

On Friday, Fisher issued a sweeping apology. “I misjudged the remarks against Dr. Gradel earlier this week,” he said. “I would like to express my sincere apologies and retract these remarks.”

The row comes at a sensitive time for Osborne, who is trying to reach an agreement with Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis on the future of the Parthenon sculptures, also known as the Elgin Marbles .

Under Osborne’s plan, some of the sculptures now in the British Museum would be loaned to Athens, possibly for a period of 10 years, while Greek treasures would be shipped to London as “collateral” and form the basis for temporary exhibitions.

Despina Koutsoumba, president of the Association of Greek Archaeologists, claimed this week that the debate over the theft highlighted the need to return artifacts to their countries of origin.

“We want to tell the British Museum that they can no longer say that Greek heritage is more protected in the British Museum,” she told the BBC.


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