Tories and toff flog off the family treasure
Wednesday 15th April 2015
A unique Egyptian statue has been stolen from the people of Northampton and sold to the highest bidder. Can this cultural vandalism be stopped? PETER FROST investigates
A 4,400-year-old limestone Egyptian statue sold at Christie’s auction house last summer for a record price of £16 million.
Once owned by the people of Northampton, it was bought by an overseas bidder.
The Tory council and its leader David Mackintosh had made an undercover agreement with Spencer Compton, Marquess of Northampton, whose ancestors gave the statue to the people of the town around 1870, to sell the statue and split the proceeds.
The marquess, whose ancestors had looted the statue in the first place, walked away with £7 million.
Mackintosh is also prospective Tory candidate for the South Northampton constituency in the general election.
He and his local Tory council ignored a huge protest campaign to stop the sale from both local people and the countrywide museum movement. Protesters predicted huge repercussions if the sale went ahead and now those predictions have come true.
Culture Minister Ed Vaizey has placed a temporary export ban on the export of the statue. The current owner’s identity and location have not been released. The final ruling will be made in July if Vaizey and the Tories are still in government.
Just as protesters had warned, the sale of the statue has led to the banning of Northampton Council and its museums from industry body the Museums Association meaning many opportunities for both funding and inter-museum exhibit loans have been lost.
The council has also had a quarter of a million pound Heritage Lottery Fund bid rejected as a consequence of the sale.
Vaizey decided to bar the export following a recommendation by the Reviewing Committee on the Export of Works of Art and Objects of Cultural Interest (RCEWA), which is administered by Arts Council England.
The RCEWA declared that the statue was of outstanding aesthetic importance in the study of private statuary and funerary religion in Egypt and the history of human self-representation.
The powerful limestone statue of scribe Sekhemka — “his name means strong of soul” — and his wife was made in about 2400 BC. Sekhemka was a man of some importance. He is named in an inscription on the plinth of his statue as “Inspector of Scribes in the House of Largesse, one revered before the Great God.”
Sekhemka is shown holding a roll of papyrus on which are listed offerings including bread, beer, wine, perfume, cedar oil and linen clothing.
At Sekhemka’s feet is a woman on a much smaller scale. She is Sit-Merit, his wife. You can just make out that her body was originally painted with a dark blue dress. Both his and her fine wigs show their high rank in society.
The statue was acquired by Spencer Compton, the second marquess of Northampton, during a trip to Egypt in 1850 — a time when many rich British aristocrats were touring the world and either looting or buying cheaply the art treasures of other cultures to fill their stately homes or private museums.
Sekhemka was taken from the necropolis at Saqqara near Cairo.
It is well known that the private sale of antiquities encourages looting, smuggling and corruption — especially in countries where the political situation is unstable. Northampton Council’s sell-off of its Egyptian treasure will contribute to this shadowy world of dealing in antiquities.
Egyptian Ambassador Ashraf Elkholy condemned the sale as an “an abuse to the Egyptian archaeology and the cultural property” of Egypt.
He said the statue of Sekhemka should have been handed back to Egypt if the council no longer wanted it.
The sale is just another example of short-sighted and short-term Tory austerity policies up and down the country.
They sell the family silver and end up with very little to show for it.