Egypt --> Northampton --> Christies: How one statue caused a UK museum to lose its Arts Council accreditation.

The sale of an Egyptian statue has caused a scandal in the museum world.

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Sekhemka, c. 2400-2300, Painted limestone, 76cm high. Image source.

The work in question was executed in painted limestone, circa 2400-2300 BC. An inscription identifies the figure as a man named Sekhemka, Inspector of Scribes at the royal court. The object had a votive function, and would have been placed in Sekhemka’s tomb to ensure the well being of his soul.

But, the statue was brought to the UK by the 2nd Marquess of Northampton, who acquired the statue during his travels in Egypt in 1849-50. It entered the collection of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery soon after.

On 10th July 2014, Christies sold the statue for £15 million, exceeding their estimate of £4-6 million.

The same day, Nottingham Borough Council — the local authority that runs the museum — issued a statement defending the sale:

‘Northampton Borough Council will retain around £8million (55 per cent of the proceeds), while the remainder will be remitted to Lord Northampton (around £6million).

The money will be invested in a major extension of Northampton Museum and Art Gallery, which will double the size of the exhibition space and create new galleries, teaching facilities and commercial space.’ Full Statement.

However, today (1st August 2014) the Art Fund responded with a statement announcing the annulment of Northampton Museum’s Arts Council accreditation: 

‘A museum has a duty to care for its collection responsibly and to adhere to the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics and the well-established sector standards. Removing accreditation is sadly necessary if these standards are not followed.

While the sale may have partially addressed a short-term financial need, the £8m raised is small compared with the potential loss of income from funding schemes for which the museum will now no longer be eligible.’ Full Statement.

To make matters more complicated, the Egyptian Ambassador to the UK has stepped in to demand that Sekhemka be returned to the country of its origin. 

This story highlights the ethical obligations of museums and galleries, which are carefully managed by organisations such as the UK’s Art Fund. Equally, we must consider the often-complex histories of art-objects. But, considering the bigger picture, Sekhemka is a work that will most likely disappear from public view, and as a result, Northampton Museum looks set to lose funding opportunities, as well as the cultural esteem that accompanies museum accreditation.

You can read Arts Council England’s description of its Accreditation Scheme online here.