A local English council has caused a furore once again over plans to promote itself internationally as a cultural heritage destination three years after it controversially sold a 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue.
In a report for the council’s scrutiny committee released this month, Northampton Borough Council announced its intention to assess its heritage holdings in order to promote the town’s global cultural reputation and increase its visitor numbers.
The council scandalised campaigners and Britain’s Egyptian ambassador in 2014 when it sold a limestone statue of Sekhemka to fund the expansion of its museum. Former Minister for Culture, Ed Vaizey, placed a temporary export bar on the statue in 2015 until 29 March 2016 to enable a UK buyer to meet the £15.8 million price tag it fetched at auction.
After no UK buyer for the statue was found, the temporary export bar was lifted. Sekhemka is now thought to be held by a US private collector. Egypt’s ambassador to Britain in 2013, Ahsraf Elkholy, said the council should have returned the statue to Egypt if it no longer wanted it and that its sale constituted “an abuse to the Egyptian archaeology and the cultural property”.
Sekhemka was acquired by the second Marquis of Northampton on a trip to Egypt in 1850 and was later presented to Northampton Museum by his son. Sekhemka is believed to have been a high court official, a judge and administrator and the artefact dates from the 2400-2300 BC. Depicting him reading a scroll, the statue may have been placed in Sekhemka’s tomb.
In March 2016, the Egyptian ambassador to Britain intervened to save the statue for display in Britain and Egypt. Ambassador Nasser Kamel devised a plan whereby the Egyptian embassy would purchase the statue and loan it to London’s British Museum and Cairo’s Egyptian Museum for six months at a time.
Campaigners from the Save Sekhemka Action Group said “The ambassador’s suggestion shows the level of anger the sale of Sekhemka aroused and commitment to keeping the statue in the public domain in the two nations”.
The latest report from Northampton Borough Council has inflamed tensions once again. Save Sekhemka chairman, Gunilla Loe, struggled to find something positive to say about the council’s plans. “I do not think they (the council) understand culture and heritage”, Loe stated.