Action group says DCMS lobbied it to fundraise for Sekhemka

Patrick Steel, 07.10.2015
Export bar extended until 29 March 2016
Claims have emerged that the government lobbied the Save Sekhemka Action Group to fundraise to keep the ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka, the subject of an export bar, in the UK.

The original deadline for the bar was 29 July, but this was extended to 28 August “to allow a final opportunity for a buyer to put forward a serious expression of interest to raise funds to keep the Sekhemka statue in the UK”. The Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) announced on Friday that it would be extended the bar until 29 March 2016.

Gunilla Loe, the chair of the action group, who attended a meeting with senior DCMS officials on 1 September, told Museums Journal: “When the meeting closed the DCMS team were anxious to hint very heavily that fundraising to purchase the statue might be a way out of the dilemma.”

Ruth Thomas, a former registrar at Northampton Museum and a member of the action group, who was also at the meeting, said: “DCMS was pressing us to set up a campaign to raise the money. We explained that the whole point [of our campaign] was that we objected to the sale. It would be like raising money to buy stolen goods.”

The government disputed the claims. A DCMS spokeswoman said officials had not suggested that the action group should fundraise to purchase the statue.

The department for culture would not reveal the identity of the fundraising campaigner that has expressed a “serious intention” to raise funds to keep the statue in the UK, but the spokeswoman said the organisation “has a broad base of supporters from the UK and Egypt”.

Museums Journal understands that the department for culture has been in touch with the Egyptian authorities, who are pressing for the statue to remain in the public domain.

On 25 August, three days before the first deadline extension, the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities took advertising space in a number of UK newspapers, including the Daily Mail, the Guardian, and Metro, calling for the statue to be saved for the public.

The advert said: “Sekhemka, an irreplaceable masterpiece, is about to leave the protection of a public museum and land into private hands, when it should be left for artistic and educational programming for future generations to come.

“This is an outcry to all concerned bodies involved; to a continued intervention to maintain the export ban on such a historic and cultural gem.”

Researchers in Egypt are attempting to uncover the historic documentation showing the provenance of the statue when it left the country in the 19th century.

Stephen Quirke, a professor of Egyptian archaeology at University College London, said: “It is very urgent that the whole thing is overturned. If the people who made millions from this [sale] are allowed to get away with it that would be a worrying development for any museum in this country.”

The statue was sold last year for £15.8m, with the proceeds split 45/55 between Northampton Borough Council and Lord Northampton, who claimed ownership of the statue.

The identity of the buyer is unknown, although unverified reports have suggested that it is a member of the Qatari royal family.

The sale was deemed to be against the Museums Association’s (MA) Code of Ethics and led to the council being barred from the MA and losing Accreditation with Arts Council England.

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