Three highly reputable Egyptologists based at University College London’s Institute of Archaeology and the Petrie Museum of Egyptology have warned the Government that the sale of the statue of Sekhemka at Christie’s for £15.76 million, could yet be shown to have “contravened International Law.” The warning comes in a strongly worded letter published in today’s Guardian newspaper. The letter, which was written to coincide with the end of the Government’s Temporary Export Ban, put in place by Culture Minister Edward Vaizey in March, is signed by Professor Stephen Quirke and Dr Richard Bussmann of the UCL Institute of Archaeology and Dr Alice Stevenson of the pioneering UCL Petrie Museum of Egyptian Archaeology. The letter goes on to voice one of the core concerns of many of the campaigners who opposed the sale when it states that “In the museum, the statue was safe under national law: it is about to leave the protection of a public museum and enter private hands without legal safeguards. We may never see it again.”
This latest letter adds to the pressure on the UK Government to take action to begin to undo the damage done to Anglo Egyptian cultural relations by the sale of the statue by Northampton Borough Council in July 2014. Earlier this week the Northampton based save Sekhemka Action Group and it’s partner campaign based in Cairo, issued a joint statement asking UK Prime Minister David Cameron to intervene to broker a deal with the anonymous owner of Sekhemka, which would see the statue remain on free public display in a UK Museum. There are also unconfirmed reports from Cairo that the Egyptian Government has been making representations to the UK regarding the future of the statue and that Egyptian President Al-Sisi is taking a personal interest in the case.
thePipeLine also understands urgent documentary research is currently underway in archives in London, Northampton and Cairo, including in the archives of the British Museum, with a view to discovering the precise circumstances of the original procurement and export of the statue. If that research does unearth documents which suggest that the statue was exported from Egypt in the 19th century in a manner which was in any way “contrary to law”, the consequences for all the parties involved are unpredictable and potentially very expensive.
Among those who might be awaiting the results of the research with some trepidation are the architects of what the Museums Association, the Arts Council and the International Council of Museums, all condemned as an “unethical sale”, Northampton Borough Council, particularly the Council’s former Leader David Mackintosh MP, as well as the council’s silent partner, the Marquis of Northampton. The Marquis, ancestors of whom appear to have obtained the statue from Egypt in the mid to late 19th century and later donated it to Northampton Museum on condition it was kept on free public display, was given over £6 million from the proceeds of the sale by Northampton Council. This transfer of money came in spite of the fact that the sale contract with London auctioneer Christie’s, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act, shows that the sale was in the name of Northampton Council who clearly stated they owned the statue. The Council also paid all the sellers fees. After various suggested uses were rejected by museum regulators, including the Museums Association, Northampton Borough Council ultimately claimed that the remaining proceeds from the sale would be ring fenced for a new museum development in Northampton. However, an immediate consequence of the sale was that the Northampton Council’s museum service lost Arts Council Accreditation and thus also lost access to most funding streams which require accreditation, including Lottery Funding, for at least five years.
Christie’s themselves might also be nervous, not least because of the implications for the international trade in high end antiquities if the sale of Sekhemka is shown to be in any way “contrary to law”. While there is no suggestion that the sale of Sekhemka or any other recent sales by Christie’s fall into this category, the international antiquities trade at all levels is already under pressure from museum, academic and heritage bodies because of allegations that some artifacts, on sale through dealers and at auction, can be linked to looting, trafficking and money laundering. Allegations which are highlighted by the activities of all sides in the Syrian Civil War including the so called Islamic State. A point which was made to UK Prime Minster David Cameron in the statement from the Northampton and Cairo campaigners. Once again, while there is no suggestion that the anonymous buyer of Sekhemka was acting in any way illegally, that linkage between expensive art and antiquities and allegations of money laundering now appears to be particularly powerful in the light of a speech given by Mr Cameron in Singapore on Tuesday. In the speech Mr Cameron promised greater transparency in the London property market to combat similar allegations that expensive property, purchased anonymously or through complex webs of front companies, can sometimes attract dirty money. Many campaigners are now likely to argue that such transparency must also be extended to the international market in Art and Antiquities and that the days of anonymity for buyers and sellers who can hide their identity behind a front or a proxy, are over.
The full text of the Guardian letter can be found at
The full text of the Statement from the UK and Cairo Save Our Sekhemka Campaign can be read here