Egyptian protest outside Christie’s over the auction of the statue of Sekhemka , 10 July 2014
[Copyright Andy Brockman]
In a damning confirmation of it decision to punish Northampton Borough Council for the unethical £15.8 million sale of the statue of the Egyptian Royal Scribe, Sekhemka at Christie’s on 10 July, the Museums Association has described the behaviour of Northampton Borough Council as “childish and petulant”. The decision has also raised some very serious questions as to the Council’s conduct and in particular its spending of Council Tax payers money in what appears to have been an unresolved attempt to determine who actually owned the statue which may have cost the Council Tax payers of Northampton at least £40,000 and possibly cost them as much as £6 million. The share of the proceeds of the sale given to the Marquis of Northampton.
In the statement issued in the aftermath of the 1 October disciplinary hearing which barred Northampton Council Museums Service from membership for five years the Museums Association stated that Northampton Borough Council’s “plan to share the proceeds of the sale [of Sekhemka] indicated that legal title of the object was not resolved.” Crucially, the sales literature provided by auctioneer Christie’s fudged the issue of ownership referring only to the “Northampton Sekhemka”. However, it is known that there were extensive legal discussions with the Marquis of Northampton who many believe was the legal owner of the statue, under the terms of a 19th century deed of gift, at the time of the sale .
Northampton Borough Council and its Leader Cllr David Mackintosh, have so far resisted all attempts to obtain records of the legal and financial discussions around the sale of Sekhemka under the Freedom of Information Act citing commercial confidentiality. However, the Museums Association comment suggests that their expert Ethics Committee believed there was evidence that the Council’s spend of over £40,000 of Council Tax Payers money attempting to establish title failed, resulting in a legal fix to enable the sale to proceed.
Following the meeting a spokesperson for the Council quoted in the Northampton Chronicle and Echo failed to address the ownership issue instead saying
“It is curious that the Museums’ Association is choosing to review our membership when we have already notified them that we have resigned from the Association and have no desire to ever re-join.
Having reviewed the value of membership we could not see what benefit it offered to our museums.
We are focusing on the future and our exciting plans to invest in improving both museums including the huge expansion of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery rather than the odd bureaucracy of an organisation we no longer belong to.”
BBC Radio Northampton later Tweeted that the Museums Association were describing the the Council’s behaviour as “childish and petulant”.
If Northampton Borough Council can be shown to have misled the public, the media and others over the true ownership of the statue and the reasons why the Marquis of Northampton was apparently given over £6 million of public money, the issue of the sale of an internationally important Egyptian statue, which the Museums Association’s Acting Head of Policy, Sharon Heal, described as “a clear violation of public trust at a local, national and international level.” may also be about to turn into a discussion about the ethics and behavior in public office of several of the most senior officers and elected members of Northampton Borough Council.