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Question for Culture Minster Ed Vaizey:  What links the Shard, Al Jazeera TV, British arms exports, the financing of Islamist parties in Egypt and inward investment in the UK Economy?  The answer may just be a four thousand year old statue currently languishing in secure storage somewhere in Britain, Sekhemka.

As things stand the Temporary Export Ban placed on the statue of Sekhemka by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey expires today [28 August 2015] and it is unclear at to whether, having already extended the export ban once, the Minister will further break with precedent and extend it again to allow for further negotiations to determine the internationally important statue’s future.   As he makes his decision Mr Vaizey will have far more on his mind than the simple application of Arts Council England’s guidance on the regulations governing the legal export of cultural objects.  In recent weeks it has become clear that the Sekhemka controversy is no longer simply about the ethics of the sale of artifacts from publicly owned museum collections.  The increasingly public intervention of the Egyptian Government in the shape of both the Foreign Ministry and the Antiquities Ministry, mean the final destination of Sekhemka is now just as much, if not more, a hot political issue and matter which could impact directly on the relationship between at least three Governments, those of the UK, Egypt and the Gulf State of Qatar.

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Mr Vaizey will start from the point of view that what is certain is that the sale of Sekhemka, while deeply unethical according to the UK Museums Association and International Council of Museums, remains lawful.  He will think this even though the sale is still hedged around with legal question marks, particularly over the precise ownership of the statue and the financial arrangements regarding the sale which saw the Marquis of Northampton given over £6 million, even though he was not listed as an owner of the statue in the sales agreement with auctioneer Christie’s. Thus the new owner of the statue,  who rumours in the Art world and in Cairo have it is a wealthy Qatari possibly belonging to the Royal Family of Qatar, is perfectly entitled to seek an Individual Export Licence [IEL] for the statue.  Equally properly the review process under the Waverley Criteria, overseen by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest, facilitated by Arts Council England, has recommended to the Secretary of State for Culture John Whittingdale and through him to Mr Vaizey, that there statue is of outstanding importance under at least one of the three Waverley Criteria and is thus of national importance warranting a temporary export ban pending an attempt to raise the funds to compensate the buyer and keep the statue in the UK.  So far so simple an application of the existing export licence rules.

Mr Vaizey will also be aware that previous rows over the export of art and antiquities have usually been settled through the Waverley route.   Either an object is quietly exported, or sufficient funds are raised to compensate the buyer, a deal is struck and a press release is issued stating that such and such an object or artwork has been saved for the nation.  This process was seen in action only a few days ago in the case of the Lorenzo Bartolini marble sculpture “The Campbell Sisters Dancing a Waltz“, which was purchased at a cost of £523,800, with over half coming from the National Heritage Memorial Fund (NHMF) and the Art Fund, with the remainder contributed by the Victoria and Albert Museum and the National Gallery of Scotland. However, the Sekhemka sale has exposed a gaping hole in the UK’s policy to retain nationally important cultural objects.  That is, what does the Minister do when no-one in the UK will attempt to raise funds to buy a nationally important cultural object which is at risk of export because it was already in public ownership when it was sold.

As Alistair Brown, policy officer of the Museums Association told the MA website

“It is very difficult for public organisations to fundraise to buy something from another public organisation. It’s cross-subsidising,..Organisations like the Art Fund tend to fund purchases from private hands to be brought into public ownership, not to keep something that is already in public ownership.”

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[The Art Fund provided £98,800 of the money to purchase the Bartolini sculpture].

This means that while Arts Council England and the DCMS are told that an object is of outstanding importance and should be saved for the nation, no formal mechanism exists to throw an object such as Sekhemka a cultural lifebelt if that object is at risk of being swept overseas purely because it was pushed into the maelstrom by an unethical former owner like Northampton Borough Council.

It is this observation that Mr Vaizey is sitting on both a rock and a hard place which has led the campaigners at the Save Sekhemka Action Groups [SSAG] in the UK and Egypt to ask the Minister to actively negotiate and broker an agreement which would see a gift or loan back arrangement which placed Sekhemka on permanent public display in a major UK Museum, or failing that in Egypt. However, up until now there has been no sign of such negotiations and no Museum has publicly stepped up to the plate and offered Sekhemka a home.  Something thePipeLine understands the campaigners find deeply frustrating.

What ever happens over Sekhemka, campaigners will argue that there is certainly a case for examining why Arts Council England can on the one hand declare an object of outstanding national importance, but on the other hand refuse to intervene because of the necessity to operate the Reviewing Committee system impartially?   An apparent disjoint which becomes more acute and absurd when it is observed that Arts Council funding and the museum accreditation process, are founded on its officers and panels making value judgments and even intervening in the operational decisions of clients.  For example there is currently a move that any new National Portfolio clients of Arts Council England must be based outside of London.

However, if it is already, in the now inescapable description drawn from Armando Ianucci’s political satire “The Thick of It”, an omnishambles for the Government, Arts Council and UK arts and museums establishment, the Government’s dilemma over how to handle the fall out from the Sekhemka sale is rapidly becoming a whole lot worse.

What is making Mr Vaizey’s problem even more intractable is the fact that the Sekhemka row has now transcended the Arts World.  It is no longer simply an esoteric spat about museum ethics in a time of fiscal austerity which few papers would give the column inches to once the initial excitement over the world record price paid for Sekhemka of £15.76 million and Northampton Borough Council’s subsequent five year ban from Arts Council Accreditation were over with.  In the last few weeks what can now justifiably be called “the Sekhemka affair” has grown like Topsy into a new concept in international diplomacy, a full blown “International Cultural Incident”.  An incident which could have an impact on international relations between at least three influential Governments; a multi million pound export industry, the Arms Trade and on high profile inward investment to London and the wider UK economy from the Middle East.

In the current state of bi-lateral relations between the UK and Egypt and the relations between Egypt and Qatar, the Sekhemka affair is a noxious and potentially highly damaging, brew.  For the UK, any issue which puts relations with Egypt under strain at a time when the Foreign Office is rebuilding trust and contacts after the Military Coup which saw the ousting of the Government of Mohammed Morsi by the current president Abdel Fattah el-Sisi is, to say the least, not welcome.  Here we must remember two things.  Mr el-Sisi attended the British “General Command and Staff Course”, at the Joint Command and Staff College, Camberley in 1992 and Egypt is one of the UK’s leading customers for Arms.  For the FCO he should be “one of ours”, an ally and an ally in one of the most politically sensitive regions on the planet.

According to figures from the Campaign Against the Arms Trade, in 2013 the UK supplied Egypt with £51 million in equipment ranging from assault rifles to aircraft components.  However, recently President al-Sisi has been  signing major arms deals with other powers including France for Rafale fighters and worse for the UK and NATO, with Russia’s President Putin.  This perceived attempt to realign Egypt’s arms supply chain might be one of the reasons why in just the first three months of 2015 the UK Department For Business and Skills reported that it authorised £48.8m in arms related contracts with Egypt.  Indeed, on 1 August the independent English language newspaper “Egypt Daily News” reported that “The UK authorised a vast increase in arms exports to Egypt at the beginning of 2015, amidst an ongoing warming of diplomatic ties and arms deals between Western countries and President Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi’s government.” [ http://www.dailynewsegypt.com/2015/08/01/uk-arms-deals-with-egypt-soar-amid-warming-diplomatic-ties/ ].

In that context, for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office [FCO] and the Treasury, a situation which appears to show that the UK is prepared allow Egyptian art and culture to be treated as a cashable commodity is at best unwelcome mood music and a worst a lever which the Egyptian Government can deploy in negotiations.

Meanwhile, Egypt’s relations with Qatar have been under pressure over allegations that Qatar, which also happens to be Egypts main supplier of Natural Gas, vital to the Egyptian people’s ability to cook and air condition their homes, was chief paymaster behind the activities of the Muslim Brotherhood, the powerbase of ousted President Morsi.  Not only that, Qatar is the home and funder of Al Jazeera TV.  The channel has been a consistent critic of Egyptian leaders and worse in Egyptian eyes, even provided a platform for critics of the Egyptian regime from the Muslim Brotherhood.   Al Jazeera was banned in Egypt in September 2013 and three months later, in an act which caused uproar in the international media, the Egyptian authorities arrested and imprisoned Al Jazeera journalists Mohamed Fahmy, Peter Greste and Baher Ghorab.  Then in February 2015 Egypt’s delegate to the Arab League, Tariq Adel, accused Qatar of supporting terrorism when the Qatari delegate expressed reservations over a clause in a communique supporting Egyptian air strikes on Daish/ISIL targets in Libya, following the beheading of a group of 21 Egyptian Copts by Daish/ISIL fighters.  In the ensuing row, Qatar withdrew its Ambassador from Cairo.  Cairo also accused Qatar of sheltering several leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, although these have since been expelled from Qatar, or according to Qatari Foreign Minister Khalid al-Attiyah speaking to Al Monitor, they “asked to leave”.

Thus, from an Egyptian perspective, for a Qatari to pay a World Record price for what Egypt regards as a stolen work of art would not only be deeply insulting, it would also indirectly put at risk other Egyptian antiquities which are at risk of trafficking, by artificially inflating the price paid for Egyptian art and antiquities at auction.   At the back of the minds of all involved will be the persistent suggestions, highlighted again this week with the murder of Khaled Al-Asaad and the blowing up of the Temple of Baal Shamin in Palmyra, that criminals, criminal gangs and even terrorist groups, including Daish/ISIL, use stolen and looted antiquities to raise funds and launder dirty money.  It is a mark of how seriously Egypt is taking the whole Sekhemka debacle that this week Egypt’s Antiquities Minister, Mamdouh el-Damaty, held a press conference in Cairo during which he broke with precedent and Egypt previous policy not to attempt to purchase Egyptian Antiquities and asked Egyptians, especially wealthy Egyptians in the UK, to give generously to a fund to buy Sekhemka.


However, to complete the viscous circle which the UK Government has to square, one of the largest investors in the UK is the Qatar Investment Authority [QIA], the Qatar sovereign wealth fund.  The QIA owns Harrods, the headquarters of Credit Suisse and a substantial chunk of Canary Wharf and the Olympic Village in East London.  While Qatari Diar, the QIA’s property arm, won a £300 million deal to redevelop the Shell Center on the South Bank opposite the Houses of Parliament and owns 80% of the Shard.  Another £3 billion deal to redevelop Chelsea Barracks was stalled in 2013, officially because the UK economy faltered, although there was speculation that Qatar was less than happy at the negative attention the development attracted, including a campaign by Prince Charles to throw out the original modernist design proposal.   There have also been suggestions that the QIA has been targeted to bank roll the controversial “Garden Bridge” development on the Thames between Mansion House and Waterloo.  All this means that Chancellor George Osborne, desperate to use large infrastructure projects such as HS2 to drive economic growth, will not want to annoy a potential major investor.  Neither will London Mayor Boris Johnson who joked he was the “mayor of the eighth emirate” during a visit to the Gulf States in 2013 which included a stop in Qatar.

Of such apparently disparate issues are international relationships made, morphed, broken and remade, particularly when seen against the backdrop of the rise of Jihadist movements across North Africa and from the Levant to the Persian Gulf.  It is enough to give Mr Vaizey, by all accounts one of the more cultured and sensitive of the current crop of Conservative ministers, nightmares of the kind it may be difficult to keep out of the media.  Even if Mr Vaizey is also, as Guardian and Spectator commentator Peter Oborne observed, David Cameron’s “…unofficial ambassador to the Murdoch press”.  However, stepping back from the geopolitical background, the immediate worry for Mr Vaizey, the UK Government, Christie’s and the buyer are, as always with contentious antiquities and art works, Provenance and Ownership.

On Thursday Egyptian lawyer Dr Nasri Marco told the BBC that there was no evidence in the Cairo archives which shows Sekhemka was legally exported from Egypt in the 19th century.  Dr Marco argued that thus by default, the Sekhemka export must have been unlawful.  It follows that if the Government of Egypt or any other complainant, can convince a UK  Judge that this is the case and must be tested by the Courts, that could allow the export of Sekhemka to be blocked with an injunction. The same thing applies if it can be shown that the ownership agreement and financial arrangements between Northampton Borough Council and the Marquis of Northampton were in any way unlawful, or breached the terms of the sales contract with Christie’s. Meanwhile, the instigators of the imbroglio, Northampton Borough Council, while they may yet face an unwelcome day in Court over these issues, are now claiming to be simply innocent bystanders.

In a statement to the BBC on Thursday, the Council claimed Sekhemka was now purely an issue for the Government and the new owner.  However, it is not clear how far this “Not my problem Guv'” attitude will carry.  Especially as it is now absorbing the attention of three Governments, the new owner of Sekhemka and the international Museum World, to try to clean up and move on from the great steaming pile of problems Northampton created in it’s parochial attempt to plug a hole in their budgets caused by the cuts to local Government finances over recent years under both the Labour and Conservative led Coalition Governments.

What is clear is that if the Sekhemka impasse is to be resolved all parties to the case, the UK and Egyptian Governments, Arts Council England, the UK Museum community and the owner of the statue, need to either act in the Courts to clarify the legal picture surrounding one of the most controversial sales of a work of art in living memory, or infinitely preferably, the various players need to act with imagination to resolve the core complaint of the campaigners in the UK and Egypt and broker a solution which ensures that the statue remains on open free public display indefinitely.  After all, that is what the original donor, intended when the statue was placed in Northampton Museum.  If no legal clarification is provided then Sekhemka will remain an international byword for the short sighted, high handed, unethical treatment of museum objects.  It will not be long before the next museum to attempt to sell its cultural birthright for a short term financial gain, is accused of “doing a Sekhemka”, “doing a Northampton” or even in tribute to the architect of the sale”doing a Mackintosh”.

What ever transpires in the next few days and weeks, there will be fall out from L’affaire Sekhemka.  Given that the Department for Culture, Media and Sport and the FCO has on the payroll civil servants charged with promoting cultural diplomacy, it is a matter of interest what their private view is of a situation which has all the potential to turn into a first rate screw up, caused by the ignorant and short sighted actions of local politicians, which was only possible because of a coach and horses sized gap in UK cultural policy:  the lack of clear legal protection for publicly held museum collections.   That must be addressed in a way that even the most culturally illiterate, shorttermist local Councillor can understand.

The Arts World must also learn that when it comes to issues such as Sekhemka it is no longer possible to hide behind academic even handedness, impartiality and fence sitting  for fear of having to take a position.  This is high culture as real politics and real international relations and if the academic and museum worlds do not become visibly and practically involved in it they will have no-one but themselves to blame when politicians make decisions they do not like, or worse, fail to make decisions to protect the art and culture the museum and archaeological community professes to love, enjoy and wish to protect.  It can be a grubby world full of hard cases, but somebody has to do it.

thePipeLine also wonders what sort of reaction the former Leader of Northampton Borough Council , David Mackintosh MP, will get if he bumps into Ed Vaizey at the Conservative Party Conference in Manchester in a month’s time, let alone the reaction if he bumps into Mr Vaizey’s new boss, the Culture Secretary, John Whittingdale.  One suspects that will be as nothing compared to the reaction of Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond.  In true Whitehall style, if the two men meet it could well be at that legendary venue for a dressing down, the summons to a meeting without coffee or biscuits.

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thePipeLine is an independent news publication that investigates the place that heritage, politics, and money meet.

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