Controversial sale of museum's 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue set to raise millions at auction

By Culture24 Reporter | 02 July 2014

A last-minute council motion has failed to overturn a decision to sell Northampton's Sekhemka statue

The controversial sale of a 4,500-year-old Egyptian statue, set to proceed at a Christie’s auction next week which could raise up to £6 million, will put Northampton Museum and Art Gallery’s future loans and fundraising prospects in jeopardy, the Museums Association has warned.

Under the terms of the Arts Council’s Accreditation status, which allows the museum to exchange items with fellow venues and apply for grants and funding, members are banned from selling items unless they have no other options.

Speaking ahead of a public consultation in late 2012, Councillor Brandon Eldred, of Northampton Borough Council, said leaders would use the proceeds from Sekhemka to bring “the very best of our heritage” to a wider audience.

“The statue of Sekhemka is a valuable asset and we do appreciate its significance as an artefact,” he insisted.

“But we have decided to sell it and reinvest the money back into developing Northampton Museum and other parts of our cultural heritage.

“Every penny raised will go into projects that help to tell the story of our town’s history.”

Dismayed history enthusiasts, including representatives of the Save Sekhemka Action Group, attended a council meeting on Monday to see a Labour councillor’s motion to prevent the sale overturned by the Conservative-run council’s vote.

Lord Northampton, whose ancestor, the 4th Marquis of Northampton, gifted the bread, beer, perfume and cake-carrying figure to the museum in a vision of afterlife goods in 1880, has reached an agreement to share the proceeds of the sale with the council.

“The sale of Sekhemka will yield only a portion of the cost of the proposed museum,” Ruth Thomas, the Chairman of the Ancient Egyptian Society, told the Northampton Chronicle and Echo.

“The sale is a bad move for Northampton. It makes the museum a pariah.”

A restoration of the area’s Delapre Abbey, development work on Abington Park Museum and the establishment of a National Shoe Museum were mooted in the consultation, but more than 71% of the public suggested the funds should be put towards the proposed £14 million enhancement of the central museum, with 38% of respondents dropping their objection to the deal if all of the proceeds were invested in the museum.

The authority’s £14 million plans include a new entrance to the Guildhall Road site, new galleries, a Shoe Resource Centre, education spaces and retail, food and drink facilities as part of the town’s Cultural Quarter.

“At a time of austerity in public spending, it is almost unprecedented for a local authority to be able to announce such a massive investment in its museum service,” said Councillor David Mackintosh, the leader of the Council.

“But I believe it shows our confidence in the regeneration programme that is reshaping Northampton.”

David Fleming, the chairman of the Museums Association’s ethics committee, said the group would not endorse the sale.

“We do appreciate the huge financial pressure that many local authority museums are under at the present time, but the MA's Code of Ethics provides for such a sale only as a last resort after other sources of funding have been thoroughly explored,” he cautioned.

“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.

“We would urge the council to seek alternative sources of capital funding before undertaking the sale of such an important item with a long history of association with the borough.”

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