The Save Sekhemka Action Group ask “Have you seen this man?” The DCMS know, but aren’t telling “in the public interest”
In spite of the fact that the statue of Sekhemka was on public display in Northampton Museum for over one hundred years and was sold off in the most controversial of circumstances by the elected and publicly accountable Northampton Borough Council, the Department for Culture Media and Sport [DCMS] has ruled that there is no public interest in the public knowing who paid £15.76 million to buy the statue at Christie’s in July 2014. A hammer price which was almost £10 million more than the auctioneers pre-sale estimate. The news comes as the result of a Freedom of Information Act [FOIA] request from the Northampton based Save Sekhemka Action Group [SSAG] who led the fight to keep the internationally important Old Kingdom statue on free display to the public and available to researchers. The rejection by the DCMS of any public interest in knowing the ultimate destination of what is an internationally important work of art and culture has once again highlighted the lack of regulation and transparency in the international art and antiquities trade. A situation which, critics in the archaeological and museum argue, leaves the trade wide open to abuse by criminals wishing to monetise objects of dubious provenance or to launder dirty money.
Asked by the SSAG to disclose the identity of the buyer of Sekhemka, rumoured to be a member of the Qatari Royal Family, the DCMS replied;
“The courts have recognised that there is a very strong general public interest in protecting confidences, but that a person will not succeed in an action for breach of confidence if the public interest in disclosure outweighs the public interest in keeping the confidence.
So although the Act requires no explicit public interest test under section 41, we have considered whether there is an overriding public interest in disclosure. In this case we do not consider that there are any public interest arguments strong enough to convince the Department to set aside its duty of confidence, for example if the information revealed iniquity or fraud, or if disclosure was necessary to protect the public from harm.”
Further distancing itself from any active role in determining the future of Sekhemka, the DCMS also used the same FOIA response to restate its position that;
“…it is for UK Museums to commence negotiations regarding the loan of the statue if they wish to and would also be dependent on whether the owner wished to agree to such a loan. This is entirely a matter for UK Museums and the owner, not for the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.”
Critics of the DCMS’s stance point out that it makes no sense to first impose a temporary export ban on the statue on the grounds of its importance to the British public and then extend that ban to a full year, while at the same time refusing point blank to take any active steps to keep the statue on free public display in the UK. They add that for the DCMS to claim that any negotiations over the statue’s future are purely the responsibility of UK Museums is utterly disingenuous. The DCMS is fully aware from public pronouncements, correspondence and from face to face meetings with campaigners, that no reputable UK Museum will bid for Sekhemka because of the principle of avoiding cross subsidy. That is the use of public funds to purchase an object which had been in public ownership and was sold unethically contrary to the Museums Association Code of Ethics. In addition they also point out that there is no legal bar to the Secretary of State John Whittingdale, or anyone else in Government, initiating or brokering such negotiations.
Further adding to the sense of the DCMS deliberately taking refuge behind a smokescreen of principled powerlessness, thePipeLine also understands that the Sekhemka issue is actually being dealt with at the DCMS by officials who are specifically charged with cultural diplomacy. This is because the fate of Sekhemka is now undoubtedly seen as an international issue embroiling the Cameron Government in a row involving two key Middle East allies, Egypt and Qatar, who themselves have a somewhat edgy relationship both with each other and with western powers such as the UK.
The twin Save Sekhemka Action Groups in London and Cairo had hoped that the subject of Sekhemka would form part of the negotiations when Egyptian President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi visited London earlier this month. Indeed, members of the Cairo based arm of the Save Sekhemka campaign were in the crowd of supporters greeting the President outside 10 Downing Street. However, the President’s visit was overshadowed by the tragic downing of Metrojet Flight 9268 in the Sinai Peninsula with the loss of all 224 people on board and the subsequent grounding of tourist flights to Sharm el-Sheik by the UK Government, amid suggestions that Egyptian airport security was not up to scratch. As a result the President’s visit came and went with no public mention of Sekhemka. Even so, Egypt’s furious reaction to the British actions over the bombing of Flight 9268 only serves to show the sensitivity of relations between London and Cairo at the present time. Meanwhile, while the Qatar sovereign wealth fund has invested heavily in London, the Emir of Qatar, Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad al-Thani, has also faced calls to address accusations that certain organisations and individuals in Qatar form a source or conduit for funding Islamist groups, including the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, Ahrar al-Sham in Syria and even according to some reports Da’ish/ISIL.
In 2014 then Labour Shadow Foreign Secretary Danny Alexander wrote in the Sunday Telegraph that in his opinion Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait;
“…have been used as a base by wealthy individuals and religious foundations to channel millions of dollars to radical Sunni elements fighting Assad in Syria, either with the tacit approval of the regimes, or taking advantage of weak money-laundering protections within those states.”
In addition to the potential diplomatic ramifications, the DCMS also seems to be refusing to engage openly with the Sekhemka issue for fear of damaging the multi billion pound international auction trade for which London is a world centre. However, the Department cannot escape the opinion of independent experts that both issues are inextricably connected. Campaigners against the illicit trade in antiquities and the alleged use of high value art objects to launder money argue that the apparent immunity of the auction houses like Christie’s and Sotheby’s from public and Governmental scrutiny may be on borrowed time. This is on account of the fact that there is a growing realisation that, like the international property market, the international trade in high end art and antiquities is also ripe for exploitation by criminals and corrupt individuals seeking to make their loot seem respectable and render its sources untraceable.
In 2013 Sharon Cohen Levin, chief of the asset forfeiture unit of the United States attorney’s office in Manhattan told the New York Times:
” It is hard to imagine a business more custom-made for money laundering, with million-dollar sales conducted in secrecy and with virtually no oversight. What this means in practical terms is that “you can have a transaction where the seller is listed as ‘private collection’ and the buyer is listed as ‘private collection. “
Ms Levin added
“In any other business, no one would be able to get away with this.”
Taking up the issue of the lack of regulation of the art and antiquities market, critics also point out that, under plans to counter money laundering outlined by UK Prime Minister David Cameron at a speech in Singapore in July, if you spend £15.76 million on property in, for example, Westminster, just down the road from Christie’s auction room where Sekhemka was sold, the sale will, in future, be disclosed on a public register. Even now, for the payment of a fee, anyone can obtain the names on property deeds indicating, at the very least, who is fronting a property sale. It follows that even if the current owner of Sekhemka is a completely innocent party and for now there is no evidence that they are not, it is an untenable anomaly that the same amount of money can be spent anonymously on what is certainly, in moral terms, tainted goods and what research may yet prove to be effectively stolen goods; taken from Egypt illegally in the 19th century and unethically and maybe even unlawfully disposed of by Northampton Borough Council one hundred and fifty years later. The unregulated continuance of such an apparently morality free, unaccountable and sometimes murky trade surely cannot be in the public interest, critics say and surely should not be defended by Government departments as if it is?