thePipeLine can reveal that the decision as to whether to extend the Temporary Export Ban on the statue of the Egyptian Scribe Sekhemka could come within the next 48 hours. Sources close to the sensitive contacts between the UK Government and the Government of Egypt understand that the Department of Culture Media and Sport has been taking legal advice about various aspects of the decision, including the implications of extending the ban to March 2016. It has also been confirmed by sources close to the Egyptian Government, that the buyer of the statue is understood to be a member of the Qatari Royal Family. It was suggested last week that the statue could be destined for a museum which will be opened in time for Qatar’s controversial hosting of the World Cup in 2022.
In its deliberations the Department for Culture Media and Sport will be concerned that it is seen to uphold the rule of law when, in strictly legal terms, the purchase of the statue at Christie’s for £15.76 million was lawful. However, ministers and officials will also have received advice that there are still a number of outstanding questions regarding the actual ownership of Sekhemka between the time it arrived in the UK in the 19th century and the sale of the statue, ostensibly by Northampton Council, in July 2014. These questions include the precise circumstances of the statue’s export from Egypt, the way the sale of the statue was agreed by Northampton Council and the Marquis of Northampton and how this arrangement was subsequently represented to both Christie’s and the wider public. Northampton Council declared consistently that it was the owner of the statue, signed a contract with Christie’s affirming this and paid all of the sales costs, yet it gave 45% of the proceeds of the sale, over £6 million, to the Marquis of Northampton. Any hint that of unlawfulness in any part of the process could render the any of the parties involved, including the Government, vulnerable to costly legal action.
The DCMS will also be wrestling with the problem of its own credibility and that of Secretary of State John Whittingdale. If Sekhemka is allowed to leave the UK it will be the culmination of a disastrous sequence of events which has seen the actions of just two people in an English local authority, the former Leader of Northampton Borough Council David Mackintosh MP and Council Chief Executive David Kennedy, drive a coach and horses through museum ethics, create a precedent which puts at risk all museum collections in the custody of local authorities and put at risk the UK’s international relations with not only the worldwide museum and heritage community, but also with two key players in the Middle East, Qatar and Egypt. If it is not to become a toothless laughing stock at the mercy of the capricious whims of any local councillor with an eye on making a fast buck to plug holes in the council’s budget, the DCMS, along with Arts Council England and the Museums Association, must ensure a debacle such as the sale of Sekhemka never happens again.
It follows that when Culture Minster Ed Vaizey and Secretary of State John Whittingdale make their decision about Sekhemka it will not just be a decision about a single, albeit internationally important, statue. It will be a decision about whether the policy regarding Museums and the collections they hold in trust for the Nation is to be set by accountable national bodies ratified in Parliament, or behind closed doors by minor local politicians and millionaire aristocrats.