Egypt’s Minister of Antiquities, Mamdouh Eldamaty, has urged Egyptians living in the UK to help buy back a valuable ancient statue, fuelling an already rather heated debate over where such a work belongs.
The fate of the statue – an exceptionally rare work depicting the royal scribe Sekhemka – has been in question ever since Northampton Borough Council decided to sell it at Christie’s last year. It has been in England since the mid 19th century, when it was acquired by the second Marquis of Northampton, Spencer Compton: his family donated it to the local museum a few decades later. But on 10 July 2014, it was sold to an overseas collector for almost £16m, prompting the UK government to place, and then extend, an export bar on the piece in an effort to save it for the nation. If a serious alternative buyer isn’t found by 28 August, the unique piece of Egyptian heritage could drop out of public ownership indefinitely.
Eldamaty has made his strangely belated fundraising campaign ‘in order to repatriate [the statue] to Egypt’. That either misunderstands, or deliberately ignores, the point of the UK’s export bar – a measure explicitly designed to keep cultural treasures within the country. Instead it opens up some other, thornier, topics for debate. Does the UK really have a right to claim this work, and others like it, as a national treasure? What power does or should Egypt have to insist on its return? And if an international, public fundraising effort were to be successful, who would decide where the statue would end up?
Since the minister’s comments on Saturday morning, the debate has gathered yet more momentum. The campaigning group Egypt’s Heritage Task Force posted a statement on its Facebook page yesterday warning that a fund-raising campaign could harm Egypt’s heritage in indirect ways. ‘Experience shows that when single objects at legal sales reach such high prices, the illegal market…rises as a consequence’, the group argued, in a reference to the disastrous levels of looting in Syria, Iraq, and across the Middle East. They called instead for repatriation through diplomatic channels. Today, Egyptologist Zahi Hawass will apparently launch a petition calling for a halt to the sale, a boycott of the Northampton Museum and cultural sanctions against its director, the Egyptian news site Ahram Online reports.
The UK’s extended export bar expires on Friday, but the debate over the fate of the Sekhemka won’t be dying down any time soon, whatever the outcome.