Now who will get to keep Sekhemka?

Last year Northampton Council sold an Egyptian statue of Sekhemka for a lot of money. The Department for Culture, Media & Sport has deferred a decision on the export licence application for a second time, now giving themselves until March 29 2016. It seems there is a realistic chance that someone will buy it back for Britain. The DCMS has received “notification of a serious intention to raise funds to save the Sekhemka statue for the UK,” and thus “ensure there will be public access to the statue.”

This apparently good news came a few days ahead of the launch of the new British Archaeology, which has two features on the statue (see above, available online on October 7, and in shops on October 9). Stephen Quirke and Alice Stevenson review the sale and future implications, and I ask about the man thought to have brought the statue to England in 1850. Two things are apparent from these articles. First, that the sellers’ right to auction the statue remains far from clear. And secondly that the sale creates difficulties that potentially reach further than this one object.

A stay of export is normally a welcome opportunity for public institutions to rally thoughts and funds. As Quirke and Stevenson explain, the problem on this occasion is that the nature of the sale (by a public institution holding the object in trust and selling into the private market) means that the usual public buyers can’t touch it – doing so would implicitly support the sale.

So could a private buyer be the solution? That has problems too. At the end of the day such an outcome would mean that while the public might have full access to the statute (and I bet after all this they’d delight in seeing it), the Northamptons – the borough council and the 7th Marquis – would both get their money. The message? It’s a dodgy thing to do and makes you unpopular, but you can get away with selling off something you shouldn’t. So if you really don’t give a monkeys for education, art, culture, local worthies, current opinion and the judgment of posterity, why not empty your museum?

The DCMS announcement comes against a confusing background. We don’t know who bought the statue. It has to be someone outside the UK, and they are likely to be very rich. There have been rumours that it was a member of the Qatari Royal Family looking for a trophy to show off at the 2022 World Cup.

Meanwhile in Egypt there have been at least three proposals to see the statue taken back to where it came from. Mamdouh Eldamaty, Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, thought Egyptians around the world might buy it and send it home. This was never an official option: the UK government’s approach has been to allow people to buy it to keep it in Britain.

In a characteristic bluster, Zahi Hawass launched a petition aimed against Northampton’s sale. More on the nail, Egypt’s Heritage Task Force rejected fundraising to buy back the statue, and instead suggested putting political pressure on the British government to “correct such unethical dealing and using all possible international legal ethical ways to repatriate the statue”.

It remains possible that something in this area lies behind the extended export ban. Could the government be considering the legality of the sale, which many have questioned? The sellers have not proven their ownership or their right to sell. And, as Quirke and Stevenson point out, neither has anyone shown that an appropriate licence was granted to take Sekhemka in the first place. The paperwork to show that position, they say, may yet be found in Egypt. So before large cheques change hands, it might be felt a bit of research is in order.

Nice to see my photos being used, which is why I took them (more here). A proper credit would be good too :).

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