Northampton Museum punished for shameful sale of ancient Sekhemka statue
Northampton Museum has been issued at least a five year ban from membership to the Museum Association of Britain for auctioning off a precious Egyptian statue of Sekhemka. The 4,400-year-old statue was sold to a private buyer in July for £15.8 million, with a portion of the profit going towards a new expansion of the museum, and another portion going to Lord Northampton, whose ancestors donated the statue to the museum.
The shameful sell-off caused outrage among town historians, Egyptologists, and many citizens of Northampton, who argued that the sale was unethical. But these views were ignored by the council, despite extensive petitioning and heartfelt pleas, as well as high-level attempts to halt the sale by the Egyptian Ministry of Antiquities.
The disciplinary panel ruled that Northampton Museum had breached the Museum Association’s Code of Ethics by selling the ancient Egyptian statue of Sekhemka from their collection. In addition, its plan to share the proceeds of the sale indicated that legal title of the object was not resolved.
“At a time when public finances are pressured it is all the more important that museum authorities behave in an ethical fashion in order to safeguard the long-term public interest,” said David Fleming, chairman of the MA’s ethics committee. “Museums have a duty to hold their collections in trust for society. They should not treat their collections as assets to be monetised for short-term gain.”
The statue of Sekhemka was made in about 2400 BC and shows two seated figures with the clarity, seriousness and grace that makes Egyptian art so powerful. 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”. The figure was worked from limestone, mined from the quarries at Tura in Lower Egypt, and had two purposes – to ensure the physical appearance of the dead person and to ensure, by naming them, the offerings to be made for his survival in the afterlife. Sekhemka is shown holding a roll of papyrus on which are listed these offerings. These include bread, beer, wine, perfume, cedar oil and linen clothing.
Sekhemka holds a papyrus listing his offerings. Credit: Sekhemka Action Group
It is thought the statue was acquired by Spencer Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton, during a trip to Egypt in 1850 – a time in which the search for antiquities in Egypt gained pace. The necropolis or burial city at Saqqara near Cairo is the site of many tombs and one of these is believed to have belong to Sekhemka.
Renowned comic book writer Alan Moore described the sale as "catastrophic", explaining the sale was "undercutting one of the fundamental principles by which museums acquire artefacts in their collections.” He added: “I have donated things to the museum. But I would not be able to do that again in the knowledge that at some point in the future that gifts, made in good faith, could be sold off by a council."
It is well known that the private sale of antiquities encourages looting, smuggling and corruption, and the Museum’s sell-off of the priceless Egyptian treasure contributes to this dark world of dealing. Hopefully, the disciplinary action taken by the Museum Association will help make it clear that selling valuable and important historical treasures is no way to build for the future.
Featured image: The statue of Sekhemka. Photo source: Northampton Chronicle