On the first day of the UK General Election Campaign outgoing Arts Minister, Ed Vaizey has imposed an export ban on the statue of the Egyptian Scribe Sekhemka and in so doing has provided an unwelcome reminder of one of the most controversial episodes in the career of the Prospective Conservative Parliamentary Candidate for Northampton South, the Leader of Northampton Borough Council, Cllr David Mackintosh. The statue of Sekhemka was brought to Britain in the mid nineteenth century by the then Marquis of Northampton and thanks to a Deed of Gift, it resided in Northampton Museum for over one hundred years, until it was sold for the World Record price of £15.7 million by the Council at London Auctioneer Christie’s on 10 July 2014. A move which the Council claimed was to raise funds for a £14 million museum development, but which was lambasted as unethical and unacceptable by many in the Museum and Heritage Sector and as a ” “shameful and unethical act” by the Egyptian Government. In a further controversy, the Council paid all the sale fees and then divided the remaining proceeds of the sale with Spencer Compton, the current Marquis of Northampton even though the Council had claimed it owned the statue, spending tens of thousands of pounds in legal fees trying to prove it and then reaching a secret agreement with the Marquis. The Marquis, one of the richest men in England, albeit a man with a string of ex-wives to support, gained over £6 million from the deal, £1 million of which was placed in a fund to benefit local good causes.
Mr Vaizey was responding to a recommendation made by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA). An independent expert committee administered by Arts Council England which advises the Arts Council and Government about the cultural and national importance of objects such as paintings and sculptures which face export. In a strongly expressed statement recommending the temporary ban the committee described the statue of Sekhemka as being of “…outstanding significance for the study of the development of private statuary and funerary religion in Egypt and the history of human self-representation;” adding that the statue was “…of outstanding aesthetic importance”. The committee concluded that the statue was “…very closely connected with our history and national life.”
In Northampton the “Save Sekhemka Action Group”, which had campaigned vigorously against the sale, working hard to expose the many questions which surrounded the actual ownership and financial arrangements which saw Sekhemka sold to an anonymous bidder, rumored to be from one of the Gulf States, commented
“The Save Sekhemka Action Group are delighted that the Government has imposed a temporary export ban on the Statue of Sekhemka and we fervently hope that this will be upheld as a permanent ban on 29 July and Sekhemka, an internationally important work of Egyptian Art, will find a home in a public museum where it belongs.”
The Action Group added
“The decision of the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA) to recommend the ban, not only vindicates our position as to the importance of Sekhemka as a work of art, but also provides much needed clarity as, until now today’s announcement, we were not even able to establish that the buyer was from outside the UK. This was because while the statue is of international importance, was owned by the people of Northampton and was sold by a publicly accountable body, their Council, the process was carried out behind the cloak of privacy and commercial confidentiality.”
The stay on the export expires on 29 July 2015 unless a serious attempt to raise the £15,732,600 (plus VAT) required to purchase the statue is made. If a potential buyer does come forward the ban can be extended until 29 March 2016 to enable further fund raising. However, even if the purchase price can be raised major obstacles lie in wait for any museum seeking to buy the statue to prevent it leaving the UK. Not least of which is the sense that to purchase the object of a sale which both the Arts Council and the Museums Association opposed as unethical, could be seen as rewarding the unacceptable behaviour of Northampton Council and potentially encourage other councils which might seek to mitigate funding cuts through the cashing in of their museum and gallery collections. The short term financial gain might be seen as worth the public opprobrium and short term financial sanctions such actions can attract. Northampton Council was punished with the loss of Arts Council accreditation for five years and subsequently lost out on at least one major Heritage Lottery Fund bid which it had mounted in partnership with the London College of Fashion. While the architect of the sale, Cllr Mackintosh, was named “Philistine of the Year” by Private Eye magazine.
There is also a wider issue at stake in the fate of the statue of Sekhemka. At the time of the original sale in July 2014 the International Council for Museums [ICOM] commented “”ICOM CIPEG is concerned that the sale of the statue may result in an increase of illicit excavation and trafficking of antiquities in Egypt, an area already exposed to such risks.” Almost a year later, with Egypt still suffering from political instability and with the rich cultural heritage of North Africa and the Middle East under threat from Libya to Iraq, not least from the overt destruction of antiquities and covert trafficking of antiquities as practiced by Daish/IS and other Jihadist and terrorist groups, the issue of the trafficking and laundering of illicitly acquired antiquities is one of even more pressing international concern. In that context, while the purchase of Sekhemka seems to have been entirely legal, the kind of price inflation and the reward of controversial behaviour the sale of the statue represents can only make attempts to crack down on illegal antiquities more difficult and make the potential rewards to the perpetrators look greater and more risk free.