Egypt statue’s fate in limbo as UK export ban lapses

Friday 11/09/2015
Sekhemka on display in Sculpture Gallery, Northampton Museum 1990s. (Photo: Save Sekhemka Action Group’s Facebook page)

Cairo - Egypt has failed to raise enough money to buy back an ancient statue from a museum in Eng­land before a British gov­ernment ban was due to expire stopping the artefact being shipped abroad to an anonymous buyer who paid nearly $24 million for it in July 2014.
The future of the 4,000-year-old statue — an exceptionally rare work depicting the royal scribe Sekhem­ka and his wife Sitmerit — has been in question since Northampton Borough Council sold it at auction.
A temporary export ban imposed by the British Department of Cul­ture, Media and Sport (DCMS) pre­vented the delivery of the artefact, but the ban expired on August 28th. The buyer is now free to apply for an export licence for the work.
The Save Sekhemka group, which is lobbying for repatriation of the statue, called the sale a crime against humanity and a violation of international law.
“The authorities in charge of Northampton Museum have blocked the pharaonic civilisation from the eyes of the world by sell­ing the statue,” the group said, call­ing on international organisations to prevent the statue being passed into the hands of a private collector.
Egyptian Antiquities Minister Mamdouh al-Damati launched a campaign on August 22nd to col­lect funds to acquire the statue. But according to Ali Ahmed, the head of the ministry’s department that works on recovering pieces smug­gled out of Egypt, the money has not been raised.
“We are coordinating with the Foreign Ministry to stop the sale of the statue,” Ahmed said. “Our min­istry has been fighting the sale of this sculpture since 2012.”
The British DCMS had previ­ously said its export ban could be extended if “a serious intention to raise funds to purchase the statue is made before 28 August”. But asked whether the ban had indeed been extended, a spokeswoman for the department would only say a deci­sion would be announced in due course.
The statue depicts Sekhemka sitting in a traditional scribal pose and holding on his knees a partially unrolled papyrus, listing various of­ferings. He is named in an inscrip­tion as “Inspector of Scribes in the House of Largesse, one revered before the Great God”. Sekhemka’s wife, Sitmerit, is shown sitting at his feet.
The statue arrived in the United Kingdom in 1850 after Spencer Compton, the second marquess of Northampton, found it in Egypt. It was later donated by his family to the Northampton Museum in about 1870.
Northampton Borough Council sold the statue to fund an extension to the museum, but Arts Council England ruled the sale breached standards on how museums man­age their collections and made it ineligible for a range of arts grants and funding.
The Museums Association, the Art Fund and the International Council of Museums, as well as many Northampton residents also opposed the sale. British and Egyp­tian campaigners have asked Brit­ish Prime Minister David Cameron to stop the sale of the artefact.
At the time the statue was taken from out of Egypt, the country did not have laws banning the sale of artefacts. Wealthy Egyptians and foreign residents collected artefacts and even exchanged them as gifts.
Northampton Borough Council decided to sell the statue in 2012. Ahmed said his ministry tried to stop the sale, but was told the auc­tion would go ahead because the museum had received the statue before Egypt had laws on the pro­tection of antiquities.
The furore over the sale of the statue underscores one of Egypt’s most serious challenges: the ability of the country to protect its remain­ing artefacts.
Ahmed noted there has been a “noticeable surge in the smuggling of ancient artefacts” out of Egypt since the January 2011 revolution which as well as ending the 30-year rule of Hosni Mubarak, led to the collapse of Egypt’s security system.
In the years since the revolution, some of Egypt’s museums — es­pecially in southern Egypt — have been looted, Ahmed said, noting, however, that in 2014, the ministry managed to return some 717 arte­facts that had been smuggled out of the country.
Nevertheless, the lack of artefact registration continues to be a ma­jor problem preventing Egypt from protecting its heritage, according to Tarek Sayed Tawfik, the head of Cairo’s Central Egyptian Museum.
“This means that the government cannot protect the artefacts alone. Ordinary Egyptians must cooperate with the government to help it do this [by returning artefacts in their possession],” said Tawfik.
Before 1983, artefact explora­tion and sales were not banned in Egypt. Some Egyptians kept statues and relics dating back thousands of years at their homes, which might explain how Sekhemka was taken from Egypt in the 19th century.
Adel Emam, an independent an­tiquities expert, called for filing a lawsuit in British courts against the Northampton Museum.
“The museum has the right to exhibit the statue but not to sell it,” Emam said. “If it really is short of cash, it can sell some of the expen­sive paintings it has.”