How a deal was struck between a council and a Northampton aristocrat in the controversial sale of the Eqyptian Sekhemka statue has been revealed in newly released papers.
After almost two years of legal wrangling about the rightful owner of the 4000-year-old museum artefact, then leader of Northampton Borough Council, Councillor David Mackintosh and the Marquess of Northampton agreed in December 2013 to a deal that would see the proceeds of such a sale split.
The limestone statue, which had been given to the council by the 3rd Marquess of Northampton in 1880, was eventually auctioned by Christie’s in July 2014 for £15.8million with the current Lord Northampton, Spencer Compton, receiving a cut of £6million.
The sale was condemned throughout the art world and was considered so controversial that the council was thrown out of the Museums Association on ethical grounds.
Sekhemka had been acquired by Spencer Compton, the second Marquis of Northampton, during a trip to Egypt in 1850. It was presented to Northampton Museum by his son, the third Marquess decades later.
Documents recently obtained under the Freedom of information Act, reveal that Councillor Mackintosh had first contacted Lord Northampton in August 2012 after the council had reviewed its collection and was considering disposing of the statue because it was not regarded as part of the Museum’s core collection.
The leader said the sale of the statue would go towards the refurbishment of Delapre Abbey and asked Lord Northampton for ‘assistance in connection with the sale of the statue, and in particular, enhancing its provenance through the supply of copies of some sketches drawn by the second Marquess on his trip.’
Initially, Lord Northampton wrote back to Councillor Mackintosh to say he was saddened by the proposed sale and that he might be interested in purchasing Sekhemka.
He says: “Can you please let me know how much you have been advised it is likely to fetch.”
The papers, which contain a series of emails between the council, the nobleman and their legal teams, reveal that Lord Northampton, then changed his mind about buying back the statue, after being tipped off by a mystery person about doubts over its ownership.
Delays by the council in sharing legal advice over its ownership led to the marquess bringing in lawyers to demand the return of Sekhemka and other Egyptian artefacts in Northampton Museum and Art Gallery.
“It is clear that the corporation is in breach of the covenant in that the statue has not been displayed for many years. Accordingly the present Marquess is entitled to retrieve the statue and the other items.”
The council’s legal team counter the claims from Lord Northampton’s lawyers by arguing that ‘we are not aware of any evidence to support the Marquess’ claim to title. Indeed on the contrary, such evidence as there is strongly points in favour of the council’s own claim’.
The 1880 deed found by the marquess’s own archivist does not explicitly name Sekhemka as among the artefacts given and governed by the deed’s covenants.
Correspondence between the council’s legal department and its contracted lawyers claim that Lord Northampton’s representatives’ were ‘clutching at straws’ and using ‘bullying tactics’.
In August 2013 after a year of arguments and legal to-ing and fro-ing, council leader Mackintosh offered to meet without the lawyers to try to reach an agreement.
He says: “While we can obviously work to resolve this difference of view through the courts.
“I would like to suggest that we might consider an alternative approach. If you and I were able to meet on a without prejudice basis, and discuss the matter directly we may be able to agree a way to reach a mutually acceptable position.”
Mr Mackintosh was warned by the council’s legal team about contacting the Marquess directly stating 'It should obviously be done with extreme caution'.
A meeting took place in November 2013 at Lord Northampton’s Castle Ashby home, but lawyers were present on both sides.
In a later email, Lord Northampton told Mr Mackintosh the council lawyer was “particularly aggressive”.
The next month Mr Mackintosh put forward a proposal.
In an email he wrote: “We continue to hold the view that it would be preferable if we could reach a mutually acceptable agreement that would enable the sale to proceed and therefore I will be expressly instructing our legal advisor to put forward a written proposal for the sharing of the sale proceeds in the next day or two. Your assistance in considering our offer promptly would be most helpful.”
In the end, the proceeds of the sale went towards the refurbishment of the muesum rather than Delapre Abbey as this was the advice to the council from the Arts Council and Museums Association.
The papers also reveal for the first time a new deed, signed in April 2014, which dictates that if at any time the council wants to sell any other artefacts given by the third Marquess then it will agree a sale method with the current Lord Northampton.
Lord Northampton said this week: “I agreed to the sale having been advised that I could not have the statue returned to the descendants of the 3rd and 4th Marquesses. NBC said that they urgently needed the money to pay for substantial repairs to the museum. I had not seen the statue at this time and the valuation from Christie’s was up to £2 million. This was the sum quoted to me when I offered to buy it back from them. I did not have that sum available to me at the time or might well have acquired it for the family collection.”
Ruth Thomas who was part of the Save Sekhemka Action Group and worked at the museum for many years, said the sale of the artefact was ‘a dreadful chapter and has signalled the end of the functioning local museum. It has opened the floodgates to getting rid of material.”
The statue is in the hands of an unknown private buyer and is believed to have been exported to America.
The council leader was later named “Philistine of the Year” by Private Eye.
He became an MP, but later stood down.
Asked this week about the Sekhemka, he said: "All of the proceeds went towards the museum and it will be a great asset for the town when it is renovated.
"The issue with Sekhemka was that it had been difficult to keep in the museum because the insurance costs were very high."
Work to completely revamp Northampton Museum and Arts gallery is currently ongoing.