Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1260, (27 August - 2 September 2015 )

Ahram Weekly

Saving Sekhemka

A Fifth-Dynasty statue of the ancient Egyptian scribe Sekhemka is in legal limbo as efforts continue in the UK to prevent its sale to a private collector, wonders Nevine El-Aref

Al-Ahram Weekly

What will be the fate of the 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue of Sekhemka, currently in a legal no-man’s land as questions continue about whether it will be sold, kept in the UK, or returned to Egypt, wonders Nevine El-Aref.

The controversy over the Fifth Dynasty statue of the scribe Sekhemka began in July 2014, when the UK’s Northampton Museum put the statue up for sale to raise funds for the museum.

The statue was sold at auction to an anonymous buyer at Christie’s in London for £15.76 million, but a temporary export ban was imposed. The statue’s sale, by Northampton Council, which runs the museum, was opposed by the Arts Council England, a national funding body, the Museums Association, the Art Fund and the International Council of Museums (ICOM), as well as local people in Northampton.

The Ministry of Antiquities in Cairo asked the Egyptian Embassy in London to take legal steps to stop the sale of the ancient statue. Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh Eldamaty condemned the sale as being incompatible with the values and role of museums worldwide, which should aim to disseminate culture rather than earn money from the sale of their holdings.

He also called on ICOM to stop the sale, and the UK Museums Association warned that it would review the Northampton Museum’s membership if it went ahead with the sale. The Arts Council warned the sale could jeopardise the accreditation status of the Northampton Museum, which could in future limit the museum’s ability to obtain grant funding.

UK archaeologist Andy Brockman, who took part in the Save Sekhemka Campaign, said the sale would “bring Northampton Council into disrepute” and that it was “opposed by museum and archaeological professionals who wish to make sure that no part of Egypt’s cultural history is sold off.”

The International Committee for Egyptology (CIPEG) at ICOM said that “the sale of artefacts to pay institutional expenses is strictly against the ethical codes of national and international heritage bodies.” It was concerned that a well-known masterpiece of Egyptian art could disappear into a private collection, making it inaccessible to the general public, students and scholars.

It urged the Northampton Council to abandon the sale of the statue and set an example of ethical behaviour on the part of a public institution that acts as a custodian for objects of world cultural importance. It also expressed concerns that the sale might encourage the illegal excavation and plundering of Ancient Egyptian antiquities.

The export ban on the statue was meant to expire on 29 July, and British and Egyptian campaigners asked the UK prime minister to intervene “urgently” in the matter. The UK Department for Culture has now extended the export ban to 29 August, the first time such a step has been taken since art export regulations were introduced in the UK in 1952.

The decision was made after it was determined that the sale of the statue to a private collector by the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery and Abington Park Museum had breached Arts Council England’s standards for how museums should manage their collections.

The council has removed Northampton Museum from its accreditation scheme, and it will be excluded from future participation until August 2019, making it ineligible for Arts Council grants.

On Saturday, Eldamaty held a press conference at the ministry’s premises in Zamalek and announced that the UK has now declared a second deferral period, until March 2016, in an attempt to give an opportunity to British campaigners to collect the money to match the price of the statue.

He also called on Egyptians around the world to help Egypt recover the statue by contributing money to buy it and announced that the ministry has stopped cooperation with the Northampton Museum. He said he hoped Egyptian businessmen would raise the money required to return the statue to Egypt.

“If British businessmen find the matching money, the statue will be kept in another museum in Britain,” he said.

Egyptian Egyptologist Zahi Hawass has launched a petition against the sale of the statue and called for it to be returned to its homeland. The petition was posted on Twitter and Facebook on Monday and circulated among antiquities lovers, archaeologists and others keen on Egypt’s heritage.

In the petition, Hawass called on the international community to boycott Northampton Museum and to impose “cultural sanctions” on its executive secretary, David Kennedy, and members of the museum’s board.

“The sale of the statue is a cultural crime against Egypt’s heritage and the international community should stand united against such a crime,”

Hawass said. He added that exhibiting the statue in Northampton Museum did not give the museum the authority to sell it.

“The guardianship of the statue is the duty of the Egyptian government, which is responsible for preserving and protecting the country’s heritage, whether inside the country or abroad,” Hawass said, adding that the museum’s board had acted like “traders” and not intellectuals responsible for protecting the world’s cultural heritage.

Hawass said that when he was minister of antiquities he had launched a similar petition against Berlin Museum Director Ditcher Welding after he placed the painted bust of Queen Nefertiti on a modern metal structure for exhibition at the Venice Biennale.

The Northampton statue is 75 cm tall and depicts Sekhemka holding a roll of papyrus on which are listed a number of offerings. His wife Sit-Merit sits at his feet. The statue entered the possession of the Northampton Museum in 1880, when the second marquis of Northampton offered it to the museum.

It was acquired by the first marquis of Northampton during a trip to Egypt, after which his son presented it to the museum.

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