Image: Christie's

Northampton sells Sekhemka statue for £15.8m at auction

Gareth Harris, 11.07.2014
Sale of Egyptian artefact condemned by sector bodies
The sale of an ancient Egyptian statue from the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery at auction has been condemned by the Museums Association (MA) and Arts Council England (ACE).

The 4,500-year-old, painted limestone Sekhemka sculpture was sold to a buyer on the phone in a packed saleroom at Christie's in London last night for £15.8m.

"Northampton Borough Council will now have to see what the consequences are of selling this object in what it has been very clearly warned by several bodies is an unethical manner," said David Fleming, the chair of the MA's ethics committee. The MA could now review the museum service's membership.

"While I have great sympathy for local authorities that find themselves in financial difficulty, the public has a right to expect that local authorities will behave in an ethical manner, that shows they can be trusted with public assets; not that they will seek short-term gain at the expense of long-term damage to a community's cultural richness. Who is going to trust Northampton Council now?" added Fleming.

Scott Furlong, director of ACE’s Acquisitions Exports Loans Collections Unit, said it was "disappointing" that the local authority committed to the sale and entered into an agreement with an auction house before ACE's discussions with them were concluded. ACE will assess Northampton museum’s Accreditation status on 24 July.

“Those who choose to approach the sale of collections cynically or with little regard for the sectoral standards or their long-term responsibilities will only further alienate both key funders and the public who put their trust in them to care for our shared inheritance," he said.

The Sekhemka statue was given to the people of Northampton in a deed of gift signed by Northampton's town clerk and the 4th Marquis of Northampton in 1880.

Spencer Compton, the 4th Marquis's great-grandson and the current Lord Northampton, launched a legal challenge last year against the council's proposal to sell.

But the sale was made possible after he agreed to split the proceeds, with 45% set to go to Lord Northampton and 55% to the council.

In a statement, the MA said the plans to share the proceeds of sale indicated that legal title of the object was not resolved.

The council has said that its share of the proceeds will go towards a £14m extension of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery. It has stated that it will seek grant funding to support the extension project, which may prove problematic should it lose Accreditation status.

The MA had asked the council to seek alternative sources of capital funding before undertaking the sale of the item, which has a long history of association with the borough. "The council did not provide evidence that it had done this," Fleming said.

The leader of Northampton Borough Council, councillor David Mackintosh, told the Northampton Chronicle and Echo: “Every penny is ringfenced for the museum service and we will now make our museum redevelopment plans a reality.”

The International Council of Museums Committee for Egyptology (ICOM CIPEG) also condemned the council's decision, saying: "ICOM CIPEG is concerned that the sale of the statue may result in an increase of illicit excavation and trafficking of antiquities in Egypt, an area already exposed to such risks."


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MA Member
11.08.2014, 11:32
I fear Northampton have only themselves to blame. You'd think they would have considered the consequences in a bit more detail before they did something so drastic. And it seems even more disgraceful that an entire £6 million went to the descendant of the donor, who I bet isn't going to donate it back to the people of Northampton! Maybe the borough are going to spend the remaining £8 million on their museums service but they have seriously undermined their own status as guardians of the region's heritage.
11.07.2014, 11:16
What's so frustrating about this is that it's quite likely the sale could have eventually been done in a way that met the requirements of the Code and Accreditation if Northampton had taken the trouble to engage properly with sector bodies and tried to understand the rules properly. Instead they've got a few million pounds for a new museum but will find it very hard to raise the other money needed from lottery or charitable foundations. They have been rather blinkered. I urge all museums facing possible high value sales to take the best possible expert advice, so they maximise the chance of maintaining public trust in museums (and don't find themselves condemned by the rest of the sector and their potential funders)