Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Not About Culture but Money

There are a series of objections to the proposed sale by the Borough of Northampton of the ancient statue of Sekhemka from the town's museum. The statue was donated 'in perpetuity' to the Northampton Museum over 100 years ago  by Lord Northampton’s family. The museum's governing body however seems determined to betray the trust placed in it and want to sell the statue. It is reported that a deal has been reached whereby the present Lord Northampton will receive 45% of the proceeds of the sale, with Northampton Borough Council receiving 55% .
Sniping xenophobe collectors and their lobbyists object to Egypt's new Minister of Antiquities Mamdouh El-Damati  expressing disapproval of the sale They miss the point entirely. The Minister's statement indicates an extreme shift of policy.
El-Damati has denounced the decision made by Northampton Museum, claiming that it is against the values of museums world wide as they should act as vessels to spread culture, rather than businesses searching for a profit.
This is totally at odds with the policies publicly expressed by previous Ministers which demanded iconic objects and others be returned to Egypt. Collectors claim that antiquity collecting is all about spreading culture, but their notion of that is through private possession of trophy objects like this one, which is why on their websites and forums they simply ignore this important shift.
Mr El-Damati has called on the International Council of Museums (ICOM) to stop the sale on the grounds that it goes against the council’s ethics. Ali Ahmed, head of the ministry’s stolen antiquities section, said the Sekhemka statue was given to Northampton Museum at the end of the 18th century by an Ottoman sultan and has been a part of the museum’s collection on display since 1849. But a spokeswoman for Northampton Borough Council said Eqypt had no right to reclaim the statue and this had been confirmed after an investigation. The spokeswoman said: “We contacted the Egyptian Government two years ago regarding our plans to sell Sekhemka. “According to UNESCO’s 1970 Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property, Egypt has no right to claim the recovery of the statue, as the statue left Egypt before this convention was put in place and this was confirmed by the Egyptian Government on June 15.”
I doubt it was "given" by an Ottoman sultan - no documentation of such a gift has ever been produced. The spokeswoman is simply wrong. There is nothing exclusive about the 1970 UNESCO Convention. Of course Egypt has a right to ask for the return of something taken out of Egypt in the past which is no longer wanted by those who hold it in trust. What she means is there is nothing in the Convention (or international or local law) which would oblige Northampton to comply. That is a totally different matter. If Northampton do not want to continue to look after this statue, and no other public collection in the UK will take on this role, then it should be offered back to Egypt.  
Sources: 'Egyptian government launches last-minute legal bid to stop sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Borough Council', Northampton Chronicle and Echo  7th July 2014.
'Egypt threatens legal action to stop UK museum selling ancient statue', Al Arabiya News Tuesday, 8 July 2014.
Northampton residents have formed a Save Sekhemka Action Group. Sign the petition now, just two days left to convince the Borough's footwear philistines they are doing wrong.  To Councillor David Mackintosh, Leader of Northampton Borough Council STOP the Sale of Sekhemka by Northampton Council.

Vignette: The contested statue.

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