Thursday, July 10, 2014

Implications of the Sekhemka Sale

ICOM has raised the issue that the sale of Sekhemka may have implications for the rise of looting in Egypt.
ICOM is ... concerned that the sale of the statue, estimated between 5 and 7.5 million euros [$27 million], according to the same press release, may result in an increase of illicit excavation and trafficking of antiquities in Egypt, an area already exposed to such risks.
This is not a straightforward issue.

First, the Sekhemka statue has been known (and documented) since the mid-nineteenth century (1849/50) when it was acquired by the Second Marquess of Northampton and left Egypt. In other words, Sekhemka came to England well before the formulation of the 1970 UNESCO Convention on the Means of Prohibiting and Preventing the Illicit Import, Export and Transfer of Ownership of Cultural Property [details]. And in a market where so much of the material on offer has surfaced after (or has no authenticated documentation prior to) 1970, the Sekhemka statue offered a well documented collecting history (or, to use an obsolete and misleading term, "provenance"). Collecting histories can add to the value of an object.

Second, the Sekhemka statue does not come in the category of recently looted objects. However, the unarticulated concern of ICOM is that potential looters (or raiders of archaeological storage facilities) in Egypt will see the sorts of sums that could be raised by a single Egyptian sculpture and will try to benefit by grabbing some material that they will endeavour to get onto the European, Middle Eastern, or North American art markets. I doubt that looter would achieve $27 million for a single object: consider the cut for the trail of people need to move the object out of Egypt, the transport costs, an agent in Europe, fees, etc. But looters could think that they will be able to find another piece. But even if they did, it would not have the documented collecting history of Sekhemka, and would therefore fall under immediate suspicion (thereby lowering its value). And such searching by looters damages previously unknown and unexcavated archaeological contexts, and this leads to a loss of knowledge that can never be replaced.

Separate to these two issues is the one that has given most concern to the residents of Northampton, as well as to museum professionals. Should the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery have deaccessioned this major sculpture in order to obtain funds to do something else with its collections? Have the local politicians of Northampton contravened the ethical framework for the UK museum community? These are issues explored elsewhere on Looting Matters.

And will this lead to the future isolation of the Northampton Museum and Art Gallery? And what will be the implications for potential donations and bequests not just to Northampton, but to every single museum in the UK?

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