Sekhemka: What Really Happened
Why the trade were not the villains in the fight to save sculpture for the nation
The public need to know the truth of what went on behind the scenes as protest grew around £16 million sale of outstanding ancient Egyptian sculpture.
When Christie’s London brought the hammer down on a premium-inclusive bid of £15,762,500 at The Exceptional Sale on July 10, 2014, lot 10 became the most expensive Egyptian antiquity ever sold at auction.
The magnificent and extraordinarily well-preserved Old Kingdom (circa 2400-2300 BC) statue of Sekhemka depicted a seated scribe, with his wife at his feet, holding an unrolled papyrus carved in limestone and standing 30 inches high. Thought to have been acquired around 1850 by the 2nd Marquess of Northampton during a trip to Egypt, it was presented to the museum by the 3rd Marquess around 1870.
The controversy surrounding Northampton Council’s decision to sell it at public auction, which prompted protests outside the saleroom and outrage among Egyptians in the UK and at home, led to widespread condemnation of both the council and museum, which was stripped of its Arts Council England accreditation as a result. The art market also came in for a roasting over what was seen as its role.
We believe that Northampton Council and museum may have been better off financially by accepting a proposed deal to save the statue for the nation rather than pressing ahead with the auction.
We were brought in to value the artefact for insurance purposes four years earlier in early 2010 – a commission that ultimately led to the auction once Northampton Borough Council realised the true value of the statue and potential challenges over its insurance and security.
As soon as we realised that Northampton Museum could no longer exhibit the statue, we started on an extensive campaign to keep the statue in public hands and on display – a campaign that continued right up until it sold in August 2014 and involved one of the most generous offers of support ever made by the trade.
None of these efforts has been recognised. Instead, a widespread but inaccurate belief that the trade encouraged the sale has considerably damaged relations between dealers, academics and museums.
This cannot be allowed to continue, and so we have decided to go public with what really happened behind the scenes.
Documents relating to our work, including emails, show the extensive efforts we made to ensure the sculpture remained on public display in a museum. They also reveal how we helped construct an offer from a well-known ‘white knight’ antiques dealer to buy the piece for millions of pounds and then loan it for public display until the money could be raised to return it to a public institution.
Valuer Immediately Struck by the Outstanding Qualities of the Statue
The tale starts in February 2010, when our company, Art & Antiques Appraisals, an independent valuations firm using bespoke teams with different areas of expertise, was invited to value the collection of Northampton Museum Service for insurance purposes.
Egyptian antiquities form part of the collection and leading specialist Joanna van der Lande took on the task of assessing them.
She was immediately struck by the beautifully preserved statue of Sekhemka and undertook extensive research, including consulting academics in the UK and the US to confirm its authenticity and establish which academics had previously seen it.
The piece’s long-standing provenance, its remarkable level of preservation and original colour, as well as its outstanding importance when compared with other material that had appeared on the open market, led her to give it an unprecedented insurance valuation of £8 million.
Northampton Museum immediately took the statue off display, citing security reasons, as it had previously been valued at just £1 million. The valuation also raised concerns over the likelihood of a significant increase in insurance premiums and costly security arrangements.
With the prospect of the statue being removed from public display permanently, we struck up a dialogue with Northampton Museum’s collections officer, suggesting the museum loan the statue to the relatively close Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge. The Fitzwilliam already displayed many objects of this level of value, insured under the government indemnity scheme, and also had specialist Egyptologists on its staff. A loan would have made the statue accessible to people living in Northamptonshire and so could not have been seen as a loss to the region.
Northampton Museum Service asked us to oversee possible arrangements for such a loan and we offered to do so without charge, as we were keen to keep the statue on display and in a public institution.
Next we approached the Fitzwilliam Museum and explained the situation, providing all the academic opinion after seeking correct permissions. We then introduced both museums directly to each other and arranged for a team from the Fitzwilliam to inspect the statue in Northampton.
As we waited for a response, rumours began to circulate about a possible sale and it became clear the loan idea had been dropped. In the circumstances we warned the museum that they were likely to suffer a significant backlash from academics and the museums community if they went ahead with the sale, and we offered to give a presentation on the pitfalls to the elected members who may be less well versed with the ethical guidelines than the museum staff.
Refusing to give up, in March 2013 we approached the Fitzwilliam about putting together a consortium of British museums to acquire it, explaining that although the sums involved would be substantial, it might be possible to pay for the sculpture in stages and it was, albeit reluctantly, likely to receive the support of the Museums Association Ethics Committee as the only feasible way of keeping it in the public domain.
Meanwhile, Northampton Council invited us and two auction houses to tender a proposal for the sale. We made it clear that our only interest was in finding a buyer among British institutions that would keep the piece on public display but, ultimately, the council dismissed this option and consigned it to Christie’s for auction.
Complications Arose Over Ownership of Statue
Complications also arose over the sculpture’s ownership. Did the council really own the sculpture or was it still the property of Lord Northampton? We had previously advised the council to establish clear title as it was not apparent whether the original loan from the 3rd Marquess had, in fact, been a gift. Later, the council came to an agreement with the Marquess, which gave him a percentage of the proceeds, reportedly £6 million.
Despite the consignment to auction, we continued to look for ways to keep the sculpture in public hands, including informal discussions with Maurice Davies from the Museums Association Ethics Committee.
We then wrote to the council and Lord Northampton appealing to them to accept the intervention of a reasonable offer of £4 million plus VAT, backed by the ‘white knight’ antiques dealer, which exceeded the then world record for an Egyptian antiquity sold at auction.
The dealer proposed buying the sculpture immediately and holding it for two years, enabling the institutions to raise the funds to secure it.
Agreeing to this offer would have saved the council and museum from the inevitable fall-out with the Museums Association and grant giving bodies, a fall-out that would cost it grant funding from bodies including the National Lottery Fund, Arts Council England and The Art Fund, thereby jeopardising the future of Northampton’s public museums. However, we never heard back from the Marquess and learnt that the council had advised him not to consider the offer.
Three weeks before the sale the Museums Association published an article quoting David Fleming, chair of their ethics committee, saying: “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.”
Even though the council was well aware of the potential implications for the museum of a deaccession that did not follow Museums Association guidelines, within days it responded, saying that the offer from the dealer had been considered at “the highest level” and rejected, with the council being “committed to proceeding by way of public auction”.
Despite this, we continued to court the Fitzwilliam and British Museums in the weeks before the auction was due to take place, offering to act for them anonymously and without charge if they planned to bid for it, in the hope of keeping the sculpture on display in a public institution.
On June 10, 2014 the Keeper of the Department of Ancient Egypt and Sudan at the British Museum wrote a brief email to us confirming that they would not be bidding. The Fitzwilliam made no direct response in writing.
Temporary Export Ban to Raise Funds Failed
The sale went ahead as planned, with the statue estimated at £4m-6m. The expected outcry arose, with protests outside Christie’s from various quarters including the Northamptonshire-based Save Sekhemka Action Group, as well as Egyptian nationals, and on August 1, 2014, Arts Council England removed its accreditation from Northampton Museum over the deaccession.
A temporary ban on export for a year to enable public funds to be raised to buy the statue passed without success – perhaps not surprising in view of the failure to provide such funds prior to the sale – and the statue was exported to an undisclosed destination, thought to be in the United States.
The Egyptian Government cite Sekhemka as being an example of bad behaviour of the auction houses and trade (causing much anger within Egypt), a claim made directly to Joanna van der Lande by Egyptian officials unaware of the efforts she and we made to keep the statue on display with a public institution.
It has also led to a further breakdown of relationships between the trade and academics, one of whom refused to assist van der Lande on a standard project “because of what happened with Sekhemka”.
The record needs to be set straight. It’s bad enough that we have lost this magnificent statue from public view, especially as perfectly reasonable alternatives either to lend it or sell it to an institution were made available by us; but it is particularly galling for the trade to be blamed for the loss when we made such huge efforts to try to prevent this from happening.
Going ahead with the sale may not even have made financial sense for the council and museum.
If the museum had received the £4 million or more for it we were suggesting, not lost its accreditation, thus receiving the grants it wanted for the museum, it may well have been better off financially than receiving 55% of the Christie’s proceeds (less the legal costs of sparring with Lord Northampton etc.) and the nation would still own the statue.
Exactly why the institutions turned down the offer to acquire the statue remains unclear, as does the failure of the grant giving bodies involved to provide the funding, especially as they were later party to the application for a temporary export ban in order to give time for the premium inclusive auction price of almost £16m to be raised.