WATCHNG BRIEF: THE CURSE OF SEKHEMKA

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A REGULAR FEATURE ON thePIPELINE WILL BE THE WATCHING BRIEF.  HERITAGE STORIES WHICH WE THINK RAISE IMPORTANT ISSUES AND WHICH WILL KEEP RETURNING TO THE HEADLINES.
WE OPEN  THE SERIES WITH THE BACKGROUND TO THE STORY OF THE IMPORTANT AND FINANCIALLY VALUABLE OLD KINGDOM STATUE OF THE EGYPTIAN SCRIBE SEKHEMKA AND THE ATTEMPTS OF NORTHAMPTON COUNCIL AND THE MARQUIS OF NORTHAMPTON TO SELL HIM ON THE COMMERCIAL ANTIQUITIES MARKET.

On 2 June 2014 a full meeting of Northampton Borough Council [NBC] has brushed aside protests and confirmed the sale at auction of the statue of the Egyptian scribe Sekhemka.  The Council, led by Councilor and Prospective Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, David Mackintosh, was told that an agreement had been reached with the Marquis of Northampton to sell the valuable statue of Old Kingdom Egyptian scribe Sekhemka at the Auction House Christie’s and to divide the proceeds between the Marquis and the Council.  The Council claim the proceeds of the sale will be used to help fund a £14 million extension to the Northampton Museum and Gallery.   However, a campaign led by local people from the Save Our Sekhemka Action Group argues that the proposed sale of the statue, which had been estimated by Christie’s to be worth as much as £6 million, is potentially illegal, is certainly unethical and could lead to Northampton becoming pariah in the Museum community.

In the event on 10 July 2014 the statue of Sekhemka was sold at Christie’s London sale room in King Street for the World Record price for an Egyptian work of Art of £15.76 million.  The statue was sold to an anonymous private collector.

The statue was almost certainly obtained in Egypt in 1849/1850 by the second Marquis of Northampton, a keen antiquarian, and was gifted to the people of Northampton by the fourth Marquis later in the nineteenth century.  Thus the statue of Sekhmeka, in life a Court Scribe living around 2400 BC, was on display for local people to enjoy at Northampton Museum and Gallery for well over one hundred years until 2012 when it was removed from display, supposedly on security grounds.

When Northampton Council originally announced the proposed sale in 2012, the current Marquis of Northampton, who is also co-owner of the controversial Sevso Treasure, intervened claiming that under the terms of the fourth Marquis’s original gift the statue was not the Council’s to sell.

However, The Arts Newspaper reported that, following legal negotiations, the Council and Lord Northampton had subsequently agreed to the sale and to divide the proceeds between them.  The split negotiated  is understood to be 45% of the proceeds of the sale to the Marquis and 55% to the Council [http://www.theartnewspaper.com/articles/Northamptons-controversial-sale-of-Egyptian-sculpture/32553].  The Council will also pay the taxes and commercial fees associated with the sale, thus making the split of the actual proceeds more or less 50:50.  Thus  Lord Northampton could receive as much as £6 million from what his ancestor gave to the people of Northampton as a gift.  However, campaigners against the sale argue that, in spite of the sale at Christie’s the legal situation is still unclear and that the legal status of the sale of the statue can still be questioned.  They add that any attempt to export Sekhemka will be met by an immediate request to the Arts Council and Department for Culture, Media and Sport, to prevent the statue leaving the UK.

The Save Our Sekhemka ActionGroup also point out that a Freedom of Information Act response shows that prior to the 2 June meeting of Council, Northampton Borough Council had already spent over £40,000 on legal advice to facilitate the sale and guarantee the Marquis of Northampton’s cash windfall.

Sekhemka is not the only controversy involving heritage in Northampton.  Councilor Mackintosh and Northampton Council are also facing opposition from the Battlefields Trust and English Heritage, as well as another  vociferous local campaign, over the Council’s support for the building of community football pitches and other facilities on the nationally important Registered Battlefield of Northampton.  Scene of one of the earliest major battles during the Wars of the Roses and currently used as farmland and as a private riding school popular with local children. The conclusions of a consultation on the future of the battlefield site, which had been broadly welcomed by Campaigners from the Battlefields Trust and English Heritage, were adopted by Northampton’s Cabinet on 9 July.

Meanwhile a roll call of national cultural bodies including the Arts Council, the Arts Fund and the Museums Association and the Paris based International Council of Museums [ICOM] have criticised the sale of the Sekhemka statue, with the Museums Association and the Arts Council saying that the Council could well lose its accreditation, thus cutting off access to funding, loans and exhibitions.  The Arts Council have also commented that the sale of Sekhemka would mean that funding already given to the Council for its Museum and Gallery “may be repayable”.