This Sunday 12 July, one year on from the controversial sale of the internationally important funerary statue of the Egyptian Court Scribe, Sekhemka, the street outside high end auctioneer Christie’s resounded once again to the chants of Egyptian protesters expressing their disgust that Egyptian history had been put up for sale by Northampton Council and calling on UNESCO to intervene to “…save our stolen Sekhemka”. The protest was prompted by the looming end to the export ban on the statue put in place by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey at the end of March. Unless negotiations are successful, or the export ban is extended by the Government to allow for further discussions, the new owner of the £15.6 million statue, who is believed to be from one of the Gulf States, will be free to seek an export licence to take the statue out of the UK with no guarantee it will ever be seen in public again.
Campaigners hope the the Department for Culture Media and Sport will intervene to resolve the dilemma by which no museum can ethically raise funds to buy the statue and compensate the owner, because such action would be to reward the original unethical action of Northampton Council. One solution being proposed is attempting to persuade the new owner to make a long term donation placing the statue on display in a major British Museum. Alternatively, it is suggested they might make a similar gesture placing the statue on display in Egypt from where the statue was first exported in the late 1850’s and where the Egyptian Government regards the statue as a uniquely beautiful part of Egypt’s cultural heritage. However, this is proving difficult as the owner has requested anonymity. Something the campaigners regard as unacceptable given Sekhemka was publicly owned and put up for sale by an elected and supposedly accountable local authority. Meanwhile, thePipeLine also understands urgent research is being undertaken in archives in the UK and Cairo in order to try to determine if the original export of the Sekhemka from Egypt was legal in the first place.
Following the sale of Sekhemka the Museums Association and the Arts Council suspended the accreditation of Northampton Council for five years, preventing the Council from applying for millions of pounds of funding where accreditation is a prerequisite and also hardened their line on such sales as a warning to other museums and local authorities which might think of making a similar attempt to cash in part of the collections they hold on behalf of the public in the booming international art market. A prospect many in the museum world regard with horror, particularly as any increase in the hammer price of antiquities helps drive the demand for such cultural material. A demand which evidence suggests is increasingly fed by illicit excavations and the trafficking of antiquities, including by terrorist groups seeking to raise funds. Speaking at a conference held by the Royal United Services Institute in London earlier this month, Irina Bokova, the Director General of the UN cultural agency UNESCO, observed
“Daesh (IS) knows there’s a financial upside of this activity and they are trying to gain from it. We know also that parties in the conflict are selling to certain dealers and to private collectors and to market end buyers.”
Against this backdrop and in a further attempt to step up the pressure on the Government and local authorities to prevent a repeat of the Northampton debacle, University College London Public and Cultural Engagement, the Museums Association and the Save Sekhemka Action Group are promoting a workshop at the Bloomsbury Theatre this Thursday, 16 July. The event seeks to bring together legal experts, campaigners and museum professionals, to draw lessons from the Sekhemka scandal and other instances of cash strapped councils seeking to use their cultural collections as gambling chips on the international art market. The organisers hope that the workshop will result in a toolkit of legal and practical approaches which will make the opposition to any future proposed sales more effective.
The controversial sale of the statue, which had been available for scholars and the public to visit for free for over a century in Northampton Borough Museum, was forced through by the then Leader of Northampton Borough Council, David Mackintosh. Mr Mackintosh and his colleagues on the ruling Conservative Group, ignored not just a vociferous local campaign organised by the Save Our Sekhemka Action Group, but also the pleas of the Arts Council, the Museums Association, the International Council of Museums and even the Egyptian Government all of whom described the sale as deeply unethical. Critics also point out that Mr Mackintosh was only able to undertake the sale, which he claimed was to fund a new £14 million museum development in the East Midlands town, by negotiated the gifting of half of the proceeds of the sale, over £6 million, to the Marquis of Northampton, to prevent the Marquis taking court action to reclaim the statue which had originally been gifted to the people of Northampton by one of his ancestors on condition it remained on free public display.
Mr Mackintosh was elected as MP for Northampton South at the May General Election and observers of the political scene in Northampton suspect he hopes for a glittering Westminster career as befits a former employee of Conservative Central Office where Mr Mackintosh worked under Lord Ashcroft. However, given his actions in selling off one of the Crown Jewels of Egyptology brought about the suspension of Northampton Council from the UK Museums Association potentially preventing the council accessing millions of pounds of cultural funding, turned Northampton into a pariah in the museum world and caused what is continuing to be an international cultural incident involving the Egyptian Foreign Ministry and the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities, any promotion he does gain is unlikely to see Mr Mackintosh installed in the Foreign Office or anywhere else which requires sensitivity, diplomacy, or an appreciation of culture.